Wednesday 29 April 2020

150th Anniversary of Braille (Netherlands, 1975)

Ever heard of night writing? A military cryptographer called Charles Barbier created night writing as a system for Napoleonic soldiers to communicate silently at night. It featured 36 sounds, each encoded as a set of 12 dots. But it didn’t work. The sound codes didn’t relate to the spelling of each word and there was just too much information in 12 dots for anyone to follow at speed.

So what did Barbier do? You’ll have half an idea… In 1821, he went to consult with some blind people. More specifically, he went to a school (the Royal Institute for the Blind in Paris). Among the students, 12 year old Louis Braille, who spotted the difficulties with night writing and came up with the 6-dot, spelling-based system that we now know as Braille. Braille’s system was published in 1824, when he was just 15, and included letters and numbers. Later, musical notation, punctuation and abbreviations came to be part of the system.

Part of me is in awe that a 12 year old helping to solve a military intelligence problem came up with something which has transformed millions of lives. Another part of me is wondering how often military intelligence officers pop into a school to ask for help…

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