Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The War of the Dots

A copyeditor who reviewed the text of my novel The Rebel Wife commented on the protagonist's use of the word "braille".  Is it of too recent vintage, she asked, for Augusta to be familiar with the word?  While I believed the word would have been accessible to Augusta, I also felt the need for a better understanding of how braille became accepted as a method of printing for the blind in the United States.

The Braille System
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary dates the use of the word as a system of printing and writing for the blind to 1853, as does www.etymonline.com, an online etymology dictionary that I use regularly.

Louis Braille

Louis Braille (1809-1852), however, invented the technique in the 1830's.  The usage of braille is so pervasive today that it seems like there would have never been any other system.  Through most of the 19th century and the first third of the 20th, however, there were ongoing debates over what the best method of print for the blind was and what the drawbacks of other systems were.

Dr. Émile Javal, c. 1900

The French ophthalmologist Dr. Émile Javal attributes the first system of writing using raised dots to a Captain Charles Barbier, which was presented to the Academy of Sciences in France about 1820.  It was this initial model that Braille improved upon when he created the six-point braille system with two columns of three dots each.

In 1854, France officially adopted braille as the writing method for the blind.  In 1870, a recommendation from a panel of blind readers led by Thomas Rhodes Armitage would lead to braille's adoption as the official print system for the blind in the United Kingdom.

In the United States, things moved somewhat more slowly.  The first institution for the education of the blind to adopt braille was the Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis, whose director, Dr. Simon Pollak, selected the system in 1860.  Other leading institutions for the blind in the United States included the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, formed in 1829 by Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, and the New York Institute for the Blind, formed by a group of philanthropists in 1831.

At this time, the blind required a mediator to read and write--that is someone who would read aloud to them or to whom they could dictate letters, etc.  If there was printed material for them to read, it was normally alphabetic letters embossed on paper so that they could trace the shape of the letters with the finger.  It was admittedly a slow process to read script or print by touch at this point.

Laura Bridgman c. 1855

Laura Bridgman (1829-1889) was a famous deaf-blind pupil of Dr. Howe's in Boston who learned to read and write first through tactile signs and then using raised lettering.

Henry Fawcett and Millicent Garrett Fawcett by Ford Madox Brown, 1872, National Portrait Gallery, London

Henry Fawcett (1833-1884), a United Kingdom native who was blinded at the age of 25, could never accustom himself to raised lettering or to braille.  He was read to or dictated to others for his entire life.  Even so, he achieved a seat in Parliament and was named English Postmaster-General in 1880.

Even after acceptance at other institutions, some schools were reluctant to use braille, saying that it was too slow, even compared to raised lettering.    As late as 1905, Émile Javal, in an advice book for those who recently lost their sight, stated that:
Reading Braille, so precious for those born blind, is only a pis aller because of its exceeding slowness.  There is but a very limited number of blind who can read aloud a book in Braille with sufficient speed to make the listening to it endurable.

Later he states:
Coming to Braille:  of all writing it is the slowest, especially for one who comes to it late.  I write four words a minute.  The most skilled blind person scarcely exceeds eight; by the help of the short form none succeeds in passing ten and then at the cost of legibility.
There were other writing systems, Javal notes, that created a veritable "Tower of Babel" for the blind, including systems devised by an Austrian named Dr. Klein, the "trait point" of Dr. Vezien and another system of raised writing by a Dr. Mascaro.  In the United States, at least two other systems could be added, the Boston Point and the New York point.

The New York Point

The most successful of these was the New York point.  Developed by William Bell Wait (1839-1916), an instructor at the New York Institute for the Blind, the New York Point was a modification of the braille system he proposed in 1868.  Wait's system, rather than two columns of three dots, turned the graphic on its side and presented three columns of two dots.  Javal recommends this system (again as late as 1905) because, he says:
...the glance of the trained reader passes along the heads of the letters, much more characteristic and varied than the bottoms.  In the same way, when I read raised writing, my finger grasps less the bases of the letters, and I chance to read a c instead of an m or an x.  It is because the most sensitive area of the finger is less than the height of the common raised writing.  I do not think I am alone in this.  I believe, in fact, that the frequency of this inconvenience has had something to do with the creation of the New York point.
Keller with Anne Sullivan in 1897
Not everyone agreed.  Perhaps the most famous American deaf-blind student was Alabama-born Helen Keller (1880-1968).  In a letter to the secretary of the New York Board of Education, written in 1909 at the time of a series of hearings on the benefits of New York point versus braille, Keller stated:
I have always found New York Point a difficult, unsatisfactory system.  I object to it as it appears in most books which I have seen because it does not use capitals, apostrophes and hyphens.  This sometimes spoils the sense for the reader.  But it has a worse effect upon the young pupil.  He is liable to get an imperfect idea of capitalization and punctuation.  I have received letters written on the ordinary ink typewriter from blind persons which contained errors significantly like the defects of New York Point, and I cannot but believe that this illiteracy is traceable to their habitual use of a defective mode of punctographic writing during school years.
Keller graduating from Radcliffe in 1904
Keller was well-placed to give her opinion on types of print for the blind, as she was apparently fluent in a number of them.  This story from the New York Times of August 14, 1899 gives a good sense of the challenges facing the blind and why Keller was appropriately heralded as something of a genius:

Miss Helen Keller, having completed under the tutorship of Mr. Merton S. Keith her preparation for college in three years instead of in the four which had been assigned by some of her friends for the purpose, went to Cambridge in June last to take the regular entrance examinations for Radcliffe.  She had successfully given the usual subjects at the preliminary examination two years ago, and these remained for this entrance examination:  Geometry, algebra, elementary Greek, advanced Greek, and advanced Latin.  
It is quite certain that no person ever took a college examination with so heavy a handicap—we may say with so many kinds of a handicap—as Helen Keller’s on this occasion.  As all the world knows,  she could not see the examination papers nor hear the voice of an examiner.  The natural method of communicating the questions to her would have been to make use of the fingers of her old-time “teacher” and interpreter, Miss Sullivan.  Miss Sullivan does not know Greek or Latin or the higher mathematics, and while she is able to serve Helen by communicating to her printed Greek and Latin letter by letter, she could not have given her the slightest assistance in answering the examination questions.  But it was deemed best by all concerned to avoid even the remotest suggestion or possibility of assistance.  A gentleman was found—Mr. Vining of the Perkins Institution, who had never met Helen Keller and who was quite unknown to her and unable to speak to her—who could take the examination papers as fast as they were presented and write them out in Braille characters, the system of writing in punctured points now much used by the blind.  The questions, thus transcribed by him, were put into Helen’s hands in the examination room, in the presence of a proctor who could not communicate with her, and she wrote out her answers on the typewriter. 
Here, however, came in one of the additional points of Helen’s handicap.  There are two systems of Braille writing—the English and the American.  There are marked differences between them.  Helen Keller has been accustomed to the English system, in which nearly all the books which have been put into Braille are printed.  As the arrangement with Mr. Vining was completed but a day or two before, and as it was not known to her that he did not write the English Braille, it was impossible to make any other arrangement.  She had to puzzle out the unfamiliar method of writing.  To add to her difficulties, her Swiss watch, made for the blind, had been forgotten at home, and there was no one at hand, on either of the days of examination, to give her the time.  She worked in the dark with regard to the time which remained to her as she went along from question to question.  
But she passed the examination triumphantly in every study. …  The question may well be asked, Will Helen Keller now take the regular college course?  Who will interpret to her the lectures in foreign languages which she cannot hear?  No one can do this.  No lecture, even in English, can be translated to her in the manual alphabet as rapidly as it is spoken.  Her usual interpreter knows no foreign tongue.  Who will read to her all the required matter of the courses of reading, none of which has been put into raised print?  It is beyond mechanical possibility to give her all this through her fingers.  The obstacles appear insurmountable.  But that is the principal reason why Helen Keller is inclined to surmount them.

The Times, going back to an article of August 24, 1878, also records that division over the merits of braille versus New York point were active even then.  A convention of instructors for the blind who had gathered in Columbus, Ohio were divided over which method was better for the instruction of music, braille or New York point.

These debates would continue until finally in 1932 the "Treaty of London" was signed, giving prominence to the British version of braille.  The American Association of Instructors of the Blind and the American Association of Workers for the Blind ultimately endorsed the Treaty and a common English braille usage was agreed upon.


Artman, William and Hall, L.V.  Beauties and Achievements of the Blind.  New York: Auburn, 1859.

Howe, Maud and Hall, Florence Howe.  Laura Bridgman, Dr. Howe's Famous Pupil and What He Taugth Her.  Boston:  Little, Brown, and Company, 1903.

Holt, Winifred.  A Beacon for the Blind, Being a Life of Henry Fawcett, the Blind Postmaster-General.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914.

Javal, Dr. Émile.  Edson, Caroll E., trans. On Becoming Blind:  Advice for the Use of Persons Losing Their Sight.  New York:  The MacMillan Company, 1905.

New York Times:  August 24, 1878, August 14, 1899, February 9, 1902.

http://www.afb.org/warofthedots/book.asp.  Excerpted first chapter of The War of the Dots by Robert B. Irwin.


  1. Amazing essay! I never knew how Braille worked and including the alphabet here was a great idea. Also, I didn't know how hard blind people had to fight in order to have something everyone else takes for granted. I'm finding that change comes slowly, even in the sciences, and even with proof.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Kaylie! Yes, it is a fascinating story--and that just scratched the surface! :)