How blind people learned to write: the truth can be told

Exactly 200 years ago, in June 1821, a crucial experiment was taking place in a school on the rue St-Victor in Paris. The school was the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles (the Royal Institution for Blind Youth) and the students were learning to read and write using a system of raised dots in a code that represented letters of the alphabet. No, it wasn’t the system later developed by Louis Braille – although he was among the students who were part of this experiment. The inventor was a man called Charles Barbier (1767–1841).

I’ve mentioned him before, because I have spent some years uncovering his story, and learning that nearly everything written about him to date is either completely wrong or mostly wrong.

The quest started in December 2016, at the museum of the Association Valentin Haüy.

Norman, shown here, was doing research on methods of using Braille and I picked up a book about Louis Braille and started to read it. It described Barbier’s invention of raised dots that could be read by touch. I hadn’t realized that the idea was not Braille’s own. I went to speak to the museum curator, Noëlle Roy.

“What can you tell me about Charles Barbier?”

Noëlle stopped what she was doing and looked at me intently. “Are you interested in him?”

“I think so. Why?”

“We have his papers and letters here. I have catalogued them, but nobody else has ever taken a close look at them. Would you like to see them?”

Previously unexamined correspondence? A history researcher’s form of catnip. When I’d woken up that morning, I’d never heard of Barbier. Now I was longing to read his letters.

Noëlle brought me a large archival box. It contained not only letters, but publications and reports about Barbier’s work. Since our time at the museum was limited, I photographed and photocopied as much as I could to read later and began to piece together the story with additional research.

I made one important discovery at the Louis Braille Museum in Coupvray. This is a small town to the east of Paris, and although it is reachable by commuter train, it feels as if it is deep in the countryside. Norman and I went there on a lovely June day in 2017 with our friend Mireille.

The museum contains a photograph of what is said to be a portrait of Barbier as a young man.* I would love to know where the original is.

The guide, Stéphane Mary, brought out a file of information on Barbier. It contained a very interesting record from the French Ministry of Defence.

Nearly every account of Barbier’s life goes on and on and on about his military background, his rank as captain, his artillery training. Some writers have even suggested he attended the same military academy as Napoleon – Brienne. So I looked at the piece of paper with some interest. Here’s what it told me.

Barbier trained at the artillery academy in Douai, starting in May 1784. He became a second lieutenant in a Besançon regiment in 1785; was promoted to first lieutenant in 1791; and appointed captain on May 18, 1792. He quit the army two days later, May 20. And then, with the Revolution on, he left the country, as so many officers did. His military career took up eight years of his life in total, and he spent two days as a captain. That’s it.

The emphasis on Barbier’s military career accompanies a persistent myth about his invention of raised-point writing – that he developed it for the army, to allow instructions to be written and read in the dark on the battlefield. Some writers have waxed lyrical about Barbier’s grief when good men were killed because they lit a lamp to decipher a message from headquarters.

Balderdash. All of it. Barbier invented raised point type specifically for blind people. He says so in an 1815 book in which he introduced his writing system and explained its potential use by blind people. The book is available on Google Books where anyone can read it, although it seems that nobody has.

So what, exactly, was Barbier’s invention? That 1815 book was in the box that Noëlle showed me, a slim volume with green covers, rather blotched, marked up here and there by its author. I transcribed it (it’s only 33 pages of text with a series of illustrations) and began to understand what Barbier was up to.

In it, Barbier proposes nothing less than an alternative to conventional reading and writing methods for people who have not received the lengthy education necessary to become fully literate. They included blind people, but they weren’t the only intended audience. Barbier was thinking of farmers, artisans, the urban poor, deaf people, all those left behind by the education system of the time.

Barbier points out a problem with the conventional alphabet. A perfect writing system would have one symbol for each sound, no more and no less. But that’s not what we have. Some sounds can be produced with more than one letter (c, k, q) and some sounds can only be indicated with a combination of letters (ch, for example, or ou). Barbier also thought writing was far too hard to master. All those little squiggles that take years to learn. So he came up with a simpler approach.

He created a grid, well, two grids. One contained the letters of the alphabet and the other the 30 sounds of the French language. In other words, he offered a choice between conventional spelling and phonetic spelling. The rows and columns of the grid were numbered, and each letter or sound could be identified by its place in the grid – row 3, column 4, say, or row 5, column 1.

Each number was assigned a simple symbol. And each letter or sound could be represented by a combination of two symbols, one for the column number and one for the row number. Easy-peasy.

The one with raised dots was the easiest of all, because instead of an arbitrary symbol for each number, the column and row number was represented by the number of raised dots. Four vertical dots followed immediately by two vertical dots was row 4, column 2. And when you know the letter or sound that occupies that space, you can read.

Not only did Barbier invent this approach, he designed and fabricated the instruments necessary to make the raised dots – a tablet with grooves into which the dots could be pressed, a punch to make them, and a third tool to keep the dots lined up. These were essential.

He wrote to the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles to describe his system. The director brushed him off. When that director left, the next one was interested, but maddeningly casual. He lost Barbier’s first letter and made appointments he did not keep. But he assigned a senior student to learn the system and teach others.

It worked. In 1821, Barbier’s system was demonstrated in front of the board of directors by two blind students. One was sent into a separate room. The other used the system to transcribe words dictated by one of the directors. Then the first student was sent for and proceeded to read the message correctly.

Yes, the system was clumsy and it did not extend to things like numbers or punctuation, let alone musical notation (music is an important skill for many blind students). But as a proof of concept, it was brilliant, and fired up Louis Braille to develop a neater, more flexible system, also using raised dots, and using the tools Barbier had made.

One further important discovery came in the library of the modern-day Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles, which is now located on the Boulevard des Invalides.

Letters written by Barbier to the school are kept there. I was not allowed to photocopy or photograph them, so Mireille and I spent hours transcribing. It was tiring work, and it took me a while to notice something important.

Just as most writers harp on about Barbier’s military career, most repeat the story of an early meeting with Louis Braille at which the young student (barely in his teens) points out defects in the system to its older inventor. They assume the two were at loggerheads and suggest that Barbier resented the young Braille. They play up the young-blind-student-versus-the-experienced-captain for all it’s worth. David and Goliath.

Never happened. Complete fiction. The letters tell the story. Louis Braille first published his own system in 1829 (he later altered and refined it). In 1833, four years later, Barbier hears about it and writes to the school, asking for a copy of the publication. He also asks if the inventor is a student or a teacher because he has never met him. By this time, Braille is a teacher in his twenties. Barbier takes one look at Braille’s system and immediately writes a letter of congratulation to Braille. The two meet several times thereafter, and their letters are invariably friendly.

I remember sitting in the library of the Institut reading that letter from 1833. By this point, I was getting pretty good at reading early 19th-century French handwriting. I turned to Zoubeida Moulfi, the librarian, and said, “Look! Barbier didn’t meet Braille until 1833. They’d never met before then.” She studied the letter and agreed. We stared at each other for a moment.

Turns out the story about Braille’s criticism of Barbier’s system was the fabrication of that director of the school who kept avoiding meetings with Barbier, Alexandre-René Pignier. He wrote his account after both Barbier and Braille were dead and unable to set the record straight. He’d been fond of Braille, and had, for some reason, disliked Barbier. So he wrote a story that puts Barbier in the shade and makes Braille sound even more precocious.

Now that I understand what Barbier was trying to do, I wonder about his motives. Why was Charles Barbier so obsessed with alternative forms of writing?**

I have a theory. Barbier himself found writing difficult. He employed a scribe to write his formal business correspondence (his own writing was messy). And he couldn’t spell (which may account for his preference for phonetic spelling). The scribe corrected his spelling of ordinary words, but took Barbier’s version of proper names for granted, and mostly, Barbier misspelled them. For example, Barbier always wrote Pignier’s name as Pégnier (maybe that’s why the man disliked him).

Whatever his reasons, Barbier wanted to make reading and writing easier for everyone. Along the way, he came up with a workable method that allowed blind people to read and, more importantly, to write down their thoughts and ideas and read them again later. Before Barbier, blind students could not take notes or write to other blind people (although a few learned to write for sighted people). This was a huge step forward. With his odd invention (and his donation of hundreds of sets of writing equipment to the school), Barbier opened the path to true literacy for blind people.

Yet Braille is in the Pantheon, and Barbier in an obscure grave in Père Lachaise (he died in 1841). The inscription on the simple slab is so worn down that it’s almost unreadable – except by touch. We paid our respects to him there in 2018 (thanks to Mireille for finding the grave) and I promised I would publish the real story one day.

And I have. On Wednesday, June 16, 2021, Disability Studies Quarterly published my article on Barbier. I have learned far more than I could put in a single article, but at least I have started to set the record straight.

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie. Heartfelt thanks to the other members of Team Barbier, Mireille Duhen and Noëlle Roy, who provided translations, transcriptions, suggestions, hospitality, and encouragement every step of the way.

A podcast is now available on the Disability History Association website.

*If you Google Barbier’s name, you will also find an engraving of a different bloke with hair combed forward and very formal attire. That is actually Pierre-François-Hercule, comte de Serre (1776–1824), wearing the regalia of the Order of the Holy Spirit. Charles Barbier’s full name was Nicolas-Marie-Charles Barbier de la Serre and he was never a member of the order. Someone didn’t check carefully (or at all) and mislabelled the image of the comte de Serre.

**That 1815 book includes a whole range of variations on the grid method. Many were intended as simplified writing forms, but he includes some methods that would allow for coded messages (one looks like musical notation, for example) and methods of writing without a pen (which, in the days before fountain pens and ballpoints, required inkpots and other apparatus) for travellers and, yes, the military. But these other forms never caught on.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
This entry was posted in Charles Barbier, History of the blind, Paris cemeteries, Paris history, Paris museums and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to How blind people learned to write: the truth can be told

  1. Trish says:

    Wow, this is amazing information, I couldn’t stop reading. Thank you for finding out what’s fact and what’s fiction about the Braille system. Great historians!

  2. Linda Prinsthal says:

    Philippa, congratulations on having Barbier’s story published, and on wring this very interesting post! Well done you!

  3. Berenice McDayter says:

    Another example of how facts get lost in the passage of time and myths, or at least, misinformation replace them. Thanks, Philippe for helping to uncover the truth.

  4. m says:

    Congratulations Philippa. Great work and so interésting. Love your detective work.
    May

  5. Ana says:

    Great story! Always enjoy your investigations and revealing histories.

  6. Barbara larocque says:

    Congratulations on having researched and written such a thorough account. I am fascinated by both the subject matter and the journey you travelled to uncover all this information. As usual I am in awe. Will you be returning to Paris soon now that we Canadians of a certain age are fully vaccinated?

  7. Jan Whitaker says:

    Brilliant research revealing how skeptical we need to be of most (all?) origin stories.

    • It’s also a lesson in how mistakes get repeated. And even improved upon…one account has Barbier as a cavalry officer in Napoleon’s army! And I’ve seen stories about how Napoleon sponsored a competition for night-writing. This would have been news to Napoleonic scholars.

  8. Pat Ball says:

    Very interesting. Something different to learn about on a Sunday afternoon.

  9. S.K.Ferris says:

    Your articles are, as usual, an interesting read written with flair.
    You have a gift for describing about how to go about unearthing those little nuggets that others often overlook!

    • Thank you. I really had no idea when I started that I was going to upend the usual story. I thought at best I would just find out a few more details about him. It’s been quite an adventure.

  10. C-Marie says:

    Wonderful story!! Thank you!! What a huge heart Barbier must have had in his concern for all! I did not know that Braille was blinded in childhood. Such gifts they both have left!
    God bless, C-Marie

  11. Carroll Giocondo says:

    Are there good days/times to call you this week?

    The item below is odd, but it is about Paris so…

    Love. Carroll

  12. Hazel Smith says:

    Hi Philippa. It’s been a very long time since we talked. I used to have the blog The Clever Pup. I’m a bit of a sleuthy snoop and I found out that some books my husband bought at David Mason books belonged to your father. I thought I recognized that name!

    • Hello Hazel! How are you? David Mason is a good man. When my mother had to sell my father’s books, he took several boxes and paid her a very fair price. A few days later, he rang up to say that he owed her more money, because one of the books turned out on closer inspection to be a first edition of Dickens. Now that is an honest bookseller!

  13. Pingback: The strange case of the disappearing hotel | Parisian Fields

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