Blind people can read with their fingers, thanks to Louis Braille. Born in 1809 in France, he was an only child with perfect vision. At age 3, playing in his father’s workroom one day, Louis injured his eye with an awl. Infection eventually blinded him in both eyes, but his parents sent him to a regular school, where his strong memory helped him do well.
At age 10, he won a scholarship to France’s National Institute of Blind Youth, where he took up piano and organ studies. That year, a French soldier invented a system of writing that used raised symbols to let soldiers communicate silently on battlefields at night. When the soldier spoke at Braille’s school a few years later, the 13-year-old Louis was inspired to adapt the system to replace the awkward embossed letters blind people used to read.
After two years of hard work, Braille landed on the now-familiar six-dot alphabet-based code, which requires just a fingertip to read. The right hand touches individual dots while the left hand moves to the next line. He continued to refine the system over time, eventually working with a friend to develop a machine that let blind people type in the regular alphabet.
Braille published his system when he was 20. Despite acclaim from fellow blind students and even King Louis Philippe, the system was rejected by some sighted instructors and school board members — they feared that blind people might take away their jobs teaching blind kids.
Braille found success as a teacher and musician, but his system didn’t spread beyond the Institute. He died of tuberculosis in 1852. By 1878, renewed interest led to an announcement in Paris that Braille would become the international system of writing for the blind. It took till 1917 for the U.S. to settle on a Braille standard, and the world’s English-speaking countries only agreed to use Braille in 1932.