As early as the 1600s, European educators and philosophers called for developing methods of education for people who were blind. However, no formal system existed at that time, and literacy was enjoyed only by those whose families could provide inventive and individualized tutelage.
One of the earliest descriptions of such customized writing instruction dates from the 1680s. Mademoiselle Walker, an erudite young woman from Schaffhousen, Switzerland, had been taught letters by use of an alphabet cut into a piece of wood. She became familiar with the formation of each letter by tracing over it with a stylus, and was able to write by reproducing the motions with pencil and paper.
A similar approach, with letters carved into wood, had been tried both in Spain and in Italy in the 1600s. The students attempted to discern the shapes by feeling with their fingertips. This method was considered unsuccessful and was eventually discarded.
During most of the 1700s, systems for reading and writing continued to be available only to people of good fortune or those with the intelligence and perseverance to create their own methods. In 1762, Mademoiselle de Salignac could read and write letters formed by pinpricks on paper. Entire books were printed for her using this method. The first recorded instance of a writing apparatus is from 1692, crafted by British inventor Sir Samuel Morland, who became blind at the age of 67. Unfortunately, the nature of the appliance that permitted him to correspond with his friends is unknown.
A young Viennese woman inspired the first formal system of teaching for people who were blind. In the late 1700s, European society was enthralled with Maria Theresa von Paradis, an accomplished pianist and organist who had become blind at the age of three. She had learned the alphabet by studying letters cut out of pasteboard, and read by feeling letters pricked upon cards with pins. Among her appliances were a little press which printed letters in ink. She also used a large cushion upon which she formed letters with pins.
Von Paradis was in Paris for the 1784 concert season when she became acquainted with Valentin Haüy, who was fascinated with the reading and writing systems devised for her. Encouraged by Von Paradis’s success and abilities, Haüy founded the first school for the blind in Paris the same year.
Early teaching methods
Haüy created two methods to teach reading and writing to his students. For reading he created an embossed alphabet that could be felt with the fingers. For writing he invented a simple apparatus: a wooden frame with a number of cords stretched across its face, which guided the writer’s pen across the page. This method produced a letter that could be read by a sighted recipient.
Similar frames for guiding the hand were common and popular throughout the 19th century. Some frames used wires to guide the pen, while others used a ruler that was moved down as each line was completed.
At Perkins, students were taught to write using a very simple and inexpensive aid. In this method, the writer places a sheet of paper upon a pasteboard or metal guide with horizontal grooves. The paper is creased into the grooves, so they can easily be felt as they guide the hand across the paper. Each letter is produced within the grid formed by the grooves and the left finger. After the right hand draws the letter, the left forefinger covers it immediately when the pencil moves on to produce the next letter. A finger’s width separates words. The writing produced by this method was called square-hand, because the letters had a square and angular look. This system was taught well into the 20th century.
Word-building frames were a method of teaching children the form of the alphabet and spelling. While designs varied, they all included racks for displaying movable tiles or cut-outs of letters. The appliances were useful for classroom spelling and grammar drills, but were not an efficient means of communication.
Writing instruments including a first generation Perkins Brailler, ca. 1900, two reservoir pens for embossing, ca. 1840, and a Velcro writing board with string pen.
All of the reading and writing systems developed in the 18th and early 19th centuries were flawed. Embossed and pinpricked writing systems could not be used for writing without the use of expensive and cumbersome equipment. Handwriting methods were not readable by people who were blind. In the 1820s, a brilliant 15-year-old student at the Paris school for the blind invented a writing system that solved both of these problems.
The emergence of braille
Louis Braille’s reading and writing system for the blind was based upon an extremely complicated phonetic dot-writing system invented by Artillery Officer Charles Barbier for use by soldiers in the field. Braille simplified the system, reducing the number of dots in each cell from 12 to 6, and assigned each cell to a letter of the alphabet or a punctuation symbol. Braille could be read swiftly with the fingertips, and written with the use of a simple and inexpensive stylus and punch frame that clamped around a sheet of paper. The system was completed by 1834, and in the following decades braille was widely used in schools for the blind in Europe. In 1860, the Missouri School for the Blind became the first, and for many years the only, U.S. school to use braille for reading and writing.
Most schools for the blind in the United States used embossed Roman alphabets for printing and reading. Perkins published many textbooks in Boston Line Type, the raised alphabet created by the school’s first director, Samuel Gridley Howe. Although braille was more compact than the embossed alphabets, and gave users the freedom both to read and write with simple and inexpensive tools, for many decades most American educators opposed any system that required sighted teachers to learn a set of arbitrary symbols. However, after braille was introduced at the Missouri school in 1860, people who were blind immediately perceived its advantages, and its use spread from person to person around the country. Perkins students used it enthusiastically for correspondence and note taking. Boston Line Type remained the official printing system at Perkins until 1908, but braille was so popular for personal use that the school offered braille slates for sale by 1869.
Boston Line Type
In the year before Perkins opened its doors to students in the autumn of 1832, Samuel Gridley Howe scoured North America and Europe to create a small library for his students. However, he did not find as many books as he had hoped for, so Howe decided to create them himself.
Within a few years, Howe developed his own embossed alphabet called Boston Line Type. The new tactile writing system was compact and had few confusing flourishes, unlike others in use. Next he hired a printer, Stephen Preston Ruggles, to design a press that could produce books in Boston Line Type. In 1835, Howe printed his first Boston Line Type book called Acts of the Apostles, which was soon followed by The Blind Child’s Book, a reading textbook compiled by Howe.
Even though the official reading system at Perkins was Boston Line Type, many of the school’s students found it difficult to read, and without expensive and cumbersome equipment, it was impossible to use as a writing system. The raised dot braille alphabet was more compact and gave users the freedom to both read and write using simple and inexpensive tools, but American educators opposed any system that required sighted teachers to learn a set of arbitrary symbols. As a result, there was no standardized alphabet for English-speaking blind readers. Many students, including Helen Keller, had to learn several different reading and writing systems.
Perkins students embraced the braille system for letter writing and note taking, but Boston Line Type remained the official printing system at Perkins until 1908.
Suggested citation for scholars
McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. (2004) Reading and Writing. Perkins History Museum, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA.