Charles Barbier (1767–1841), who invented raised-point writing and the tools for creating it, is remembered today only as a precursor of Louis Braille. Stories of his life and work are mainly variations on two accounts, one by Alexandre-René Pignier published in 1859 and one by Pierre Henri in 1952. The former misrepresented the relationship between Braille and Barbier and the latter hypothesized how Barbier might have developed his ideas and introduced them to Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris. These two accounts have distorted modern ideas about the invention of point writing and the role played by Braille. The author's study of Barbier's correspondence and publications shows that (1) the method that inspired Louis Braille was never intended for the military but was specifically designed for blind people; (2) Barbier did not demonstrate it at the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles; (3) it was not used at the school in a phonetic version; and (4) Barbier and Braille met only after Braille had published his own system. These findings, drawn from primary documents, make it possible to draw a more accurate picture of the original inventor of the method and tools of point writing for people with visual impairments and thereby a more accurate picture of Braille's own achievements.
Introduction: From hypothesis to history
Charles Barbier (1767–1841), the inventor of raised-point writing and of the first tools for creating it, is remembered today only as a precursor of Louis Braille, who, inspired by Barbier's idea, used Barbier's tools to create the versatile system of writing for people with visual impairments now used around the world.
The story of Barbier's invention and of his relationship with Braille has been portrayed in books for adults and children and even on the stage. 2 Barbier is generally depicted as a prickly old artillery captain who comes to the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles (IRJA) 3 in Paris in 1821 to demonstrate his method for communicating on the battlefield at night. Braille is the sightless but gifted teenager who immediately sees both the potential and the flaws of that method (in particular, its reliance on phonetics), and goes on to invent a better system of raised-point writing using conventional spelling (see, for example, Freedman, 1997). The story is presented as a David-and-Goliath narrative, with the young, fearless student single-handedly confronting the older, aristocratic, military figure and prevailing.
This story is almost wholly fiction. Barbier did not invent his raised-point writing for the use of the military. He did not demonstrate it at IRJA. The method existed in two versions: one was phonetic, but the other used conventional spelling. And Barbier first met Braille in 1833, by which time Braille was an adult teacher at the school and had already published his own method of point-writing.
Certain elements of the fictitious story can be traced to a book called La Vie et l'Oeuvre de Louis Braille, by Pierre Henri, published in Paris in 1952. Pierre Henri did not have access to Barbier's publications or his correspondence (Henri himself was blind and the relevant documents were not available in alternative versions), so he speculated freely and openly. For example, he writes of Barbier's system:
As a former captain of artillery, Barbier had perhaps once felt how useful it could be for officers in the field to be able to write messages in the dark and later read them with their fingers (Henri, 1952, 37, emphasis added). 4
That single sentence inspired later generations of writers to fill in the fictitious backstory. Here is one example:
In his experience of battle…the Captain had known of a forward gunpost being over-run and the men slaughtered when they betrayed their position by lighting a lamp to read night orders from headquarters. The loss of good men fired the Captain's fertile mind, and he began to cast around for a method of framing orders in a form that would need neither light, nor eyes, but which could be deciphered by touch, in the dark (Bickel, 1988, 57).
Later, Henri prefaces his description of how Barbier brought his system to the attention of IRJA with the sentence: "Voici, à peu près comment les choses ont dû se passer / Here is roughly how things must have happened" (Henri, 1952, 38). In other words, he is speculating. Henri's account is plausible – he suggests that Barbier decided to pitch his point-writing method to IRJA only after meeting a group of students from the school in 1819 – but inaccurate. And it has remained unchallenged for more than 60 years.
The David-and-Goliath-type encounter between Braille and Barbier can be attributed to Dr. Alexandre-René Pignier, the director of IRJA in the 1820s and 1830s, who wrote a short biographical essay about Louis Braille in 1859. In his account, written after both Braille and Barbier were dead, Pignier invented an encounter with Barbier when Braille was still a teenager (thereby making Braille seem all the more precocious) in which Braille points out defects in the method.
Again, later writers have taken this episode and embroidered on it to dramatize a tense confrontation between the two. Here is one description of the end of the fictitious encounter:
"I am thirteen years old, he is fifty. I am blind, he is not. I am poor, he is rich. I am Braille and he is Barbier de la Serre. I am alone," said the child to himself. (Jousse, 2019). 5
In fact, Barber met Braille when the latter was an adult, and their relationship was friendly. And Braille was far from "alone" – he was fully supported by Pignier, teachers, and fellow students when he was trying to improve on Barbier's method.
Since Henri and Pignier published their accounts, two new sources of information have become available. First, in 2001, the descendants of one of Barbier's brothers donated Barbier's papers to the museum at the Association Valentin Haüy in Paris, which already contained books and objects related to Barbier's work (Roy, 2013). Second, archival documents that were once difficult to obtain are now findable through the Internet, and some of Barbier's writings are available as Google Books.
Two other sources of information have long been available, but rarely consulted. The library of the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles retains dozens of letters that Barbier wrote to the school administrators and to Louis Braille in the 1820s and 1830s, as well as some of Barbier's publications. And select documents and transcripts of letters are kept at the Musée Louis Braille in Coupvray, France.
Using these sources, and encouraged by their custodians, I have been able to piece together the story of Charles Barbier, whose military career was brief, but who spent decades developing and promoting methods of notation that he specifically intended not just for people with visual impairments, but also people who were deaf, people living in poverty who were unable to obtain formal education, and children of the working classes.
Barbier's early career
Although Pierre Henri correctly identifies Barbier's birthdate and birthplace (May 18, 1767, in Valenciennes), and his name at baptism (Nicolas-Marie-Charles Barbier de la Serre), he immediately starts speculating by suggesting that Barbier completed his military training at Brienne alongside Napoleon Bonaparte (Henri, 1952, 36).
The Musée Louis Braille in Coupvray has a brief account of Barbier's military career that sets the record straight. A former curator at the museum wrote to the French Ministry of Defence in the 1970s requesting Barbier's record and the Ministry responded with this summary:
Aspirant au Corps de d'artillerie (applied to join the artillery corps), 13 mai 1784
Élève à l'école d'artillerie à Douai (student at the school of artillery, Douai), 1er septembre 1784
Lieutenant 2e au Régiment d'artillerie à Besançon (second lieutenant in the Besançon regiment), 15 juillet 1785
1er Lieutenant (promoted to first lieutenant), 1 novembre 1791
Capitaine (made captain), 18 mai 1792
Démissionnaire (resigned his commission), 20 mai 1792
We now know that Barbier was trained in Douai (close to his birthplace, Valenciennes), served in Besançon, and was captain for a grand total of two days before resigning his commission. He left the country, along with roughly half of the officers in the royal army, because of the French Revolution. Officers in Louis XVI's army were recruited from the aristocracy; many had been ordered to crush popular uprisings, so huge numbers of them chose to emigrate rather than face reprisals.
Barbier went to the United States, arriving in Baltimore before September 5, 1792. We have the place and the date from a letter held by the Library of Congress, in which Barbier asked President George Washington for a job (Library of Congress, 1792). Washington's reply, if there was one, has been lost. Barbier chose Baltimore because he had a brother living there. 6 By 1895, he had moved to Lexington, Kentucky. The Kentucky Gazette contains several references to "Citizen Barbier," later simply "Charles Barbier," the name he used for the rest of his life.
When he first arrived in Lexington, Barbier advertised French lessons (Kentucky Gazette, 1795a). Later, he advertised lessons in the mathematics of surveying, a skill he would have learned at the military academy in Douai (Kentucky Gazette, 1795b). In a country where landholdings and land speculation were a source of wealth, this detail would have interested existing or would-be landowners, and Barbier's next appearances in the Kentucky Gazette are in relation to land transactions.
The Kentucky State Archives also contain documents that mention him. Two from 1800 indicate that Barbier himself had become a landowner. The first is dated April 11. In it, Charles Barbier sells four hundred acres in Washington and Hardin Counties to John Savary. 7 The deed notes that both Barbier and Savary are living in Millersburg, Bourbon County (Alexander Family Papers, 1800).
In the second, dated April 12, Barbier makes Savary his attorney for "fifteen thousand acres of land a tract lying in the water of Rolling Fork & Green River surveyed for Ralph Phipps that now belongs to me… for the term of three years & for longer time if I do not come back at that time…" Barbier was apparently planning to leave Kentucky, but did not know if his absence would be temporary or prolonged (Alexander Family Papers, 1800).
No evidence has yet come to light indicating where he went in 1800. He might have returned to Baltimore, where his brother was in financial and legal difficulties. 8 He might have gone to Pittsburgh; a history of the city mentions a Charles Barbier who was attempting to set up a French school there in 1801 (Wilson and Goodspeed, 1898, 501). He might have travelled to enlarge his knowledge of the country. Pierre Henri claims that Barbier spent time among the indigenous peoples (Henri, 1952, 36) 9 and in his own writings, Barbier describes methods of communication among indigenous groups in "the north and west of the United States" (Barbier, 1815, 4).
There is a gap in the evidence between 1800 and 1808, and the date of Barbier's return to France is unknown. Napoleon offered amnesty for émigrés in April 1802, but some émigrés returned even before that time. Barbier did not rejoin the military, although he is sometimes inaccurately described as a member of Napoleon's army (see, for example, Koestler, 1976).
Barbier's early publications and invention of point-writing
Barbier's first publication appeared in 1808 in Paris. His "Tableau d'Expédiographie" consisted of a single sheet outlining a form of shorthand (Barbier, 1809, ix). A year later, he published a full description of his system, titled "Principes d'Expéditive française pour écrire aussi vite que la parole / Principles of French Expeditive for writing as quickly as speaking" (Barbier, 1809). The text compares his shorthand method with methods already in use (sténographie, tachygraphie, okygraphie). The other methods were already well-established, however; Barbier had entered an overcrowded field.
What did attract attention was a section at the end of that publication, in which Barbier described an original method for communicating without using a pen (Barbier, 1809, 43–56). The method involved folding a sheet of paper to create a line and making cuts in the paper with a knife ("écriture coupée"): the angle of the cut and its relationship to the line (above or below, touching or not touching) indicated each letter. He recommended this form of writing for military officers in the field or for travellers who did not have access to writing implements. There is no indication that this method could have been read with the fingers, however; it was simply a way to capture information without conventional writing materials.
A review of his publication in the Gazette Nationale singled out this additional method for praise: "This completely new approach presents what may be the most simple and convenient writing method that exists…on certain occasions, no other method could replace l'écriture coupée" 10 (Gazette Nationale, 1809, 1102).
Barbier's next publication appeared in 1815: Essai sur divers procédés d'expéditive française (Barbier 1815). Although he is still using the term "Expéditive" (a term he continued to use, even though many of his methods were less speedy than ordinary writing), this book departs completely from the method described in his 1809 publication. More important, it is aimed at a very different audience.
In the preamble, Barbier argues that the ideal language would have one symbol per sound (he calls this "the primitive theory of alphabets"). Most modern languages, however, have evolved with redundant letters that create the same sound as other letters, or missing letters – that is, certain sounds have no single symbol and must be expressed with letter combinations. Academies and educational institutions establish conventional spelling rules to overcome these defects. The result is an overcomplication of language, particularly writing and spelling, which take years to master fully.
[T]hese [spelling] rules, determined in relation to grammar and etymology, eventually create nearly all the greatest differences between written and spoken languages; the quantity of redundant or inappropriate letters with which pronunciation is encumbered makes studying and reading very difficult to learn; and what, according to the primitive theory of alphabets, should be possible to master in several days of instruction now takes years of the most precious time of childhood. Writing also must be mastered in youth and cultivated with the greatest care.
The complicated form of letters, the difference between downstrokes and upstrokes present difficulties that only assiduous work can surmount; this takes more time than country people and city artisans generally have at their disposition, among whom the need to support themselves takes precedence over primary education; thus it is not rare to encounter among them persons who do not know how to read or, knowing how to read do not know how to write, and that henceforth, age, work and circumstances prevent them from learning these skills by ordinary means (Barbier, 1815, 11–12). 11
His book proposes a set of simplified writing methods based on a common foundation: a grid of letters, or of sounds. The grid of letters was five by five (this 25-letter alphabet did not include the letter W, which was not a regular part of the French alphabet at the time), and the grid of sounds was five by six. The grids turned each letter into a number combination: a row number plus a column number. 12 All twelve writing methods used two-part symbols to express the letter or the sound (Figure 1).
The numbers might be represented by short lines oriented in different ways, or curves or loops or wedge shapes. They could also be indicated using the fingers as shown in the bottom centre of the plate; a form that Barbier suggests might be useful for deaf people. One form used dots positioned on numbered lines that resembled musical notation, which Barbier proposed as a way to send secret messages.
The seventh method (Planche VII) was intended for use without a pen. It used dots arranged vertically: the first to indicate the row number, the second the column number. Thus the letter or sound represented in either grid in, say, the fifth row, third column, would consist of five vertical dots immediately followed by three vertical dots, the whole composing a single letter or sound. This was by far the easiest method to learn, since it was not necessary to memorize which symbol corresponded to which number; all the user had to do was memorize the grid and count the dots. The table also included an illustration of the roulette or blunt punch required to make the raised dots (Figure 2).
Barbier specifically intended this particular method for use by people with visual impairments. They and their needs were not an afterthought. He wrote in the text of his book:
Those who are blind from birth, deprived, like other blind people, of the means of reading books and writing, experience the greatest difficulties in correctly tracing conventional letters; they are restricted to using special methods of correspondence reserved for their use and those of people who take the trouble to learn them. Under these circumstances, the point writing shown in Plate VII [see Figure 2], executed without ink or pencil with a metal punch to impress regular points which can be felt with the hand and which remain sensible to the touch, seems to offer the greatest advantages, but it is only in establishments consecrated to their instruction that one could properly determine the results (Barbier, 1815, 20). 13
In other words, at the time of writing, Barbier had not tested this method with blind people, although he later experimented with several young children in the St-Sulpice parish and with some inmates of the Quinze-Vingts, the Paris hospice for blind pensioners (Weygand, 2003, 330). His invention of point-writing, and of the tools for producing it (the blunt punch to make the dots in the paper, the grooved ruler to receive them and space them out, and a movable guide to ensure the dots lined up vertically) were at this point wholly speculative. He had no proof at the time that the method would actually help people with visual impairments read and write.
Barbier's method adopted at IRJA
After publishing his method, Barbier sent it to the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles (IRJA), but its director, Sébastien Guillié, rejected point writing for his students. At that time, students at IRJA learned to read using raised type in a cursive form, a method developed by the school's founder, Valentin Haüy. Reading raised type was difficult, and students could not take notes, but the method was entrenched at the school and Guillié had invested heavily in raised-type books (Mellor, 2006, 52).
Others, however, were more receptive to Barbier's ideas. He participated in an exhibition of the products of industry at the Louvre in 1819, and sent his Essai to the Académie des Sciences, which published a favourable report (Molard, Breguet, et Prony, 1820). His methods were also written up in the Annales de l'Industrie, and it is in that publication – not Barbier's own book – that the term "écriture nocturne" appears for the first time (Annales de l'Industrie, 1821, 244). It may not have been Barbier's own choice of words, but it was an evocative name, and it stuck.
In 1821, Guillié was fired from IRJA, and replaced by Dr. Alexandre-René Pignier. Barbier wrote to the school once again, sending information about his method. Pignier reacted oddly. He was polite, but kept Barbier at arm's length. He mislaid Barbier's initial letter, made appointments and then cancelled them or simply failed to show up, and avoided meeting Barbier for two months (six letters from Pignier to Barbier dated between April and June 1821, held at AVH, tell the story). Nevertheless, he assigned someone at the school 14 to learn the method and demonstrate it, first to the Conseil d'administration (the school's board of directors), and then to the students. The members of the Conseil were impressed by how easy the method was to learn. The students realized they could use it to take notes and reread them; something they had not previously been able to do. When Barbier and Pignier finally met in person on June 19, 1821, Barbier's method was already in use at the school.
From the students' perspective, being able to write using simple equipment represented a huge advance in their education. They were taught to read the raised cursive letters developed by Valentin Haüy, and many became very proficient at this skill. But though the school claimed to teach writing, many never mastered the skill, and in any case, the form of writing taught at the school was only meant to allow the students to communicate with sighted people. Louis Braille did learn to write letters to his (sighted) parents, but he himself could not read the results.
Pierre-François-Victor Foucault (1797–1871) was a student at the school who went on to develop a writing machine allowing blind people to communicate both with other blind people and with sighted people (the raphigraphe). He had left the school well before 1821 and wrote of his own experience:
Among the subjects that are taught to blind people, writing is perhaps the one in which the least progress has been made; blind students quickly learn to read, but very few learn to write (Foucault, cited in Weygand, 2003, 331). 15
Foucault also noted that the school's graduates had no way to maintain their reading and writing skills after leaving the school, because they had no more access to raised-print books and lacked the complex and expensive tools to create raised print on their own. In this context, Barbier's method made a huge difference in the lives of the students. They could finally capture their thoughts on paper relatively easily and read them again later, or give them to other students to read.
Barbier moved to Versailles in July 1821, but continued to write to Pignier about his method. He also donated many sets of the necessary equipment to the school. Pignier responded cordially but coolly for several years, and eventually stopped replying. The head of the Conseil d'administration, Alexis de Noailles, in 1830 reminded Pignier that by ignoring Barbier's entreaties, Pignier risked giving the impression of being hostile to new ideas (Noailles to Pignier, August 19, 1830, INJA).
How were the students using Barbier's method? Although Barbier had published the instructions for point-writing with the phonetic grid of sounds (see Figure 2), the students, who had learned the alphabet, apparently used it with the 5x5 grid of conventional letters. Barbier expressed concern in a letter to Pignier that the students were not using the phonetic method (Barbier to Pignier, March 11, 1822, INJA). 16 Certainly the method worked with either grid, but for those who already knew how to read, it would be much faster to learn the method using the alphabet and conventional spelling rules.
Barbier's method was more justly criticized because the dots making up each letter did not fit easily under a fingertip and therefore made reading slow. He replied in a letter that his original versions had been even larger and the sets of dots had become more compact over time as the students learned to decipher them more quickly. Nevertheless, the twelve-dot system took more time to read relative to the six-dot Braille system that eventually supplanted it.
Barbier even offered a three-dot version, but it was harder to learn, since identifying the letters or sounds depended on the reader's ability to detect not only the positions of the three dots, but also the relative distances between them.
Another criticism was that Barbier's method also did not include symbols for punctuation or mathematics, let alone musical notation. In several letters, Barbier suggested that he could work with the music teacher to develop musical notation with raised dots, but nothing seems to have come of this idea (Barbier to Pignier, January 5 and 23, 1822, INJA).
Nevertheless, Barbier's system represented a workable prototype of writing with raised dots, what we would now call a "proof of concept." Once the tools were in the hands of the students (indeed, the tools themselves could be fabricated by the students), further experimentation was possible.
Barbier and Braille
Louis Braille, born in 1809 and rendered blind by a childhood accident, began his studies at the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles in 1819. When point-writing was introduced in 1821, he had had two years' of experience in learning to read the raised cursive type invented by Valentin Haüy. Along with his fellow students, Braille learned Barbier's method and he and they would have recognized and discussed both its potential and its flaws.
As Louis Braille developed his own version of point writing during the 1820s, Pignier kept Barbier at a distance – so successfully that Barbier did not learn of Braille's method until 1833, four years after Braille had published his first description of the six-point system (Braille, 1829). Braille's system represented a considerable advance on Barbier's proof of concept. It could be read much more quickly and adapted to uses such as mathematics and music.
When he learned about its existence, Barbier asked for a copy (Barbier to Pignier, March 29, 1833, INJA), read it immediately, and wrote a congratulatory letter to its author, apologizing for not using Braille's own system to write his letter (Barbier to Braille, March 31, 1833, INJA). The two exchanged several friendly letters, and Braille visited Barbier at his lodgings (Barbier to Braille, June 10, 1833, INJA).
The source of the story about an earlier meeting between Barbier and a teenaged Braille is Pignier himself. In his biographical profile of Braille (Pignier, 1859), he suggests that Braille confronted Barbier with criticisms of his work:
Louis Braille, like the other students, studied [Barbier's] method and, with the sagacity that characterized him, indicated to M. Barbier several improvements and resolved certain difficulties with the writing, little problems for which M. Barbier had long sought a solution (Pignier, 1859, 14). 17
Nothing whatever in Barbier and Pignier's correspondence supports this statement. Braille, who was twelve years old in 1821, did indeed study the system, but there is no record of any "improvements" to Barbier's system made as the result of his or anyone else's suggestions, although Barbier did defend it against criticisms in correspondence with Pignier (Barbier to Pignier, November 11, 1824, INJA). And when Barbier wrote to Pignier to request a copy of Braille's publication, he stated plainly that he did not know who Braille was (Barbier to Pignier, March 29, 1833, INJA).
At the very least, Pignier, writing after both Barbier and Braille were dead, was simply trying to put Braille in the best light relative to Barbier, whom he seemed to dislike, given the evidence of his behaviour towards the man. He may also have been trying to burnish his own role in the invention of Braille, as this account was written many years after he had been ousted as the director of the school.
Pignier's misleading account fits within a tradition of "hagiographic" writing about people with disabilities that makes them appear heroic, saintly, and extraordinarily gifted. Writers such as Georgina Kleege (2006) have described the demoralizing effect on disabled people of having these unreachable ideals held before them, such as that represented by Helen Keller. As she puts it:
[Helen Keller's] life story [as conventionally told] inscribes the idea that disability is a personal tragedy to be overcome through an individual's fortitude and pluck, rather than a set of cultural practices and assumptions, affecting many individuals that could be changed through collective action (Kleege, 2006, 1).
Pignier's book (which includes equally laudatory biographies of two other students who became teachers – Augustin Moulin and Gabriel Gauthier) may be one of the first to take this approach.
A divergence of views
Throughout these developments, Barbier continued to insist on the value of the phonetic method of writing. Why?
It is important to remember that Barbier's original goal was to simplify reading and writing for all, not just for people with visual impairments. In December 8, 1821, Barbier explains in a letter to Pignier that his goal was to help educate poor people without access to formal education: "It is above all the unfortunate people outside [the school] deprived of all other education to whom my method would be useful." 18 In Barbier's view, the students at IRJA were privileged in relation to those who did not have the opportunity to attend a school that catered to their needs.
Barbier also published versions of his method for use in nursery schools for the children of the working classes (Barbier, 1834) and anticipated the "intellectual emancipation" of the uneducated who could write down their thoughts using his simplified writing methods (Barbier, 1832). He believed that a phonetic method saved them the trouble of learning to spell; they simply had to capture the sounds of words using his system.
Barbier hoped that the students at the school would spread his ideas. He suggested that they should not learn the method until shortly before leaving school and only in order to instruct others, both those with visual impairments and those without any formal schooling. He speaks of "les aveugles ou les ouvriers dehors," that is blind people and workers outside the school (Barbier to Pignier, March 11, 1822, INJA). He gave individual sets of equipment to students so that they could take them home. Several times, his letters suggest that IRJA should be an "École centrale" (Central School) from which graduates would go forth and teach others and that would serve as a clearinghouse for information and equipment relating to his method for all who could use the method (Barbier to Pignier, March 11, 1822, and June 4, 1823, INJA).
Unfortunately, Barbier undermined his own efforts to achieve his goals. First, although his point-writing caught on mainly because of successful early demonstrations, he did not sponsor more demonstrations with other groups, which would either have either proved that it worked or highlighted its flaws. Instead, Barbier, who by the 1830s was well into his sixties, simply continued to publish and republish his ideas in printed documents that could not be read by their intended audience.
Second, Barbier kept modifying the method. The grid exists in several versions, although modern accounts of Barbier's work show only one form – naturally, the one published in Henri (1952, 42). In Barbier's last publication, he even dispensed with the grid, which made it hard to remember which sound corresponded with which symbol (Barbier, 1837). One cannot really speak of Barbier's "method," because there were many methods, each differing slightly from its predecessors. Only one book of any size was ever published using Barbier's raised dots, 19 but it would have been readable only to those who were familiar with the particular version of point-writing in it; someone who had encountered a different version would have found it confusing or utterly unintelligible.
Charles Barbier died on April 22, 1841, at his lodgings on the Ile de la Cité in Paris. 20 His last surviving letter (in draft form, to an unidentified recipient, March 17, 1841, AVH) shows that he was still trying to publicize his work on the education of the working classes.
Setting the record straight
What have we learned from this study of original documents?
First, Barbier clearly intended his twelve-dot point-writing method for use by blind people. Although he suggested that methods of writing without a pen might be useful for soldiers in the field, he stated clearly in 1815 that the primary audience for a method that could be read by touch was people with visual impairments.
Second, given Barbier's interest in shorthand, he was open to alternative ways of writing. Other efforts to teach blind people to read were hampered by their developers' inability to imagine letterforms that did not resemble the conventional alphabet. Barbier's twelve-point method – and the six-point version subsequently developed by Louis Braille – are essentially a form of code. Barbier was the first to propose coded writing for use by blind people.
Third, the twelve-dot method was so simple that someone who already knew the alphabet could learn it in an hour or so. Once one grasped the underlying principle, the rest was a matter of counting dots, whether reading from left to right or writing from right to left. This ease of adoption was crucial in the early demonstrations. Had the method proved more difficult and time-consuming to learn, its adoption at IRJA would have been delayed or might never have taken place.
Fourth, Barbier's invention of the three main tools for point-writing was equally crucial in getting the method adopted by IRJA. The tools were uncomplicated and inexpensive (they could even be manufactured by the students themselves, with the aid of some additional tools) and Barbier distributed hundreds of sets freely, allowing the students to learn the method and experiment with alternatives.
Fifth, although Barbier always advocated a phonetic approach, the method could be and apparently was used with the conventional alphabet, which also facilitated its adoption by the school.
Sixth, Barbier's preference for a phonetic approach stemmed from his belief that reading and writing had to be made simpler to achieve the larger goal of universal education. He was not alone in his desire to simplify orthography and spelling, neither at the time nor later, but it put him at odds with those at IRJA, who saw their job as ensuring that their students learned conventional forms of literacy, an approach promoted by the school's founder, Valentin Haüy.
Seventh, Barbier did not view the students at IRJA as the ultimate beneficiaries of his invention, but hoped that they would carry his method to unschooled people (both those with visual impairments and those who could not read and write for other reasons) "dehors" – outside the institution.
Finally, Barbier and Braille did not become acquainted until 1833, when Braille was 24 years old, four years after the publication of Braille's Procédé. A friendly relationship developed between the two men. Accounts of Barbier's resentment of Braille are belied by Barbier's and Braille's own letters.
All these conclusions, drawn from primary documents, diverge from most modern accounts of Barbier's life and achievements. 21
Why do these corrections to the historical record matter?
They matter because accuracy in historical documentation is always important, but in this case, they matter because of the distorted view that has been presented of both Braille and Barbier as a result of the repetition of unsubstantiated accounts.
Braille was not an isolated genius who took an invention intended for a different purpose and single-handed made it into the life-changing contribution it eventually became for people with visual impairments. He was not "alone" in his efforts, fighting against an uncaring establishment that misunderstood and persecuted him, but was fully supported and encouraged by family, friends, and teachers. 22 As other writers have noted (see, for example, Roy, 2019), Braille collaborated with fellow students and teachers to take a useful invention specifically intended for people with visual impairments and make it even better. His achievements are impressive, but as writers such as Weygand (2003, 334) have noted, his "heroization," beginning with the account written by Pignier (1859), has taken his work out of context and made him seem almost superhumanly gifted. The David-and-Goliath fiction of Braille's precocious confrontation with Barbier adds an extra layer of heroism.
At the same time, Barbier was not an aristocratic career soldier who clashed with a young student over the details of his invention; he was a man who had briefly served in the military, who abandoned the aristocratic form of his name after his sojourn in the United States, who spent most of his life obsessed with the desire to make reading and writing universally accessible to members of society who had been excluded from their benefits, and who took a friendly and collegial interest in Braille's efforts. His role in the invention of point-writing has been reduced to make a larger place for the work of Louis Braille.
Interestingly, in what David Bolt (2014, 36) would call "nominal displacement," Barbier is often referred to as "the captain" or "the former artillery captain" rather than by name, as if his eight years of military education and service summed up his entire life. 23 He was also a teacher, a surveyor, an inventor, and a philanthropist, but his military identity has been allowed to crowd out his other identities and achievements – just as for many people with visual impairments, their visual challenges have been allowed to crowd out their roles as creators, inventors, or innovators.
Barbier's invention of alternative forms of writing (including tools for writing without pen and ink) was the spark that led to a breakthrough in the education of people with visual impairments. It was not an afterthought or the re-purposing of a method intended for a different audience. Barbier set out to help all those deprived of literacy because of disability or poverty. His work was downplayed by Pignier, and modern readers have been repeatedly told that he never intended to help blind people at all. But Braille took his crucial innovation (raised dots, a code that did not resemble conventional letters, a set of tools) and succeeded in opening a new approach to communication for people with visual impairments.
AVH = Association Valentin Haüy, which holds a collection of Barbier's papers, mostly but not exclusively correspondence written to him by others.
INJA = Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles, which holds letters from Barbier to Pignier, from Barbier to Braille, and from Alexis de Noailles to Pignier.
- Alexander Family Papers. (1800). Kentucky State Archives. MSS-93, Robert Alexander series, John Savary documents, Box 8, Folder 4. Finding aid available at: http://www.kyhistory.com/cdm/ref/collection/LIB/id/1815
- Annales de l'Industrie. (1821). "De la formule générale d'Expéditive française." Annales, 242–259.
- Barbier, C. (1809). Principes d'Expéditive Française pour écrire aussi vite que la parole. Paris: Imprimerie Gillé Fils.
- Barbier, C. (1815). Essai sur divers procédés d'expéditive française. Paris.
- Barbier, C. (1832). Emancipation intellectuelle d'expéditive française. Paris: Bachelier.
- Barbier, C. (1834). Notice sur les salles d'asile, Le retour à la simplicité primitive de la théorie alphabétique, L'instruction familière des enfans du premier age, des aveugles de naissance et des sourds-muets. Paris: Bachelier.
- Barbier, C. (1837). Instruction familière des classes laborieuses. Paris: Chez l'auteur (self-published).
- Bickel, L. (1988). Triumph over Darkness: The Life of Louis Braille. Sydney: Allen & Unwin Australia.
- Bolt, D. (2014). The Metanarrative of Blindness: A Re-reading of Twentieth-century Anglophone Writing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.5725818
- Braille, L. (1829). Procédé pour écrire les Paroles, la Musique et le Plain-chant au moyen de points, à l'usage des aveugles et disposé pour eux. Paris: Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles.
- Bryant, J. (2016). Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille. New York: Knopf, 2016.
- Freedman, R. (1997). Out of Darkness: The Story of Louis Braille. New York: Clarion Books.
- Gazette Nationale ou le Moniteur Universel. (1809). October 4. Available online through Gallica, Bibliothèque national de France.
- Henri, P. (1952). La Vie et l'Oeuvre de Louis Braille. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
- Jousse, H. Les Mains de Louis Braille. Paris : J. C. Lattès, 2019.
- Kentucky Gazette. (1795a). August 8. Retrieved from the Lexington Public Library, Kentucky Room Digital Archives, https://www.lexpublib.org/digital-archives
- Kentucky Gazette. (1795b). December 19. Retrieved from the Lexington Public Library, Kentucky Room Digital Archives, https://www.lexpublib.org/digital-archives
- Kleege, G. (2006). Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.
- Koestler, F.A. 1976. The Unseen Minority: A Social History of Blindness in the United States. New York: AFB Press.
- Library of Congress. (1792). George Washington Papers, Series 7, Applications for Office, 1789–1796: Barbier. https://www.loc.gov/resource/mgw7.119_0256_0259/?st=gallery
- Mellor, M. (2006). Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius. Boston: National Braille Press.
- Molard, C.-P., Bréguet, A., and de Prony, G. (1820). Procès-verbal de l'Académie des Sciences, 1819, Tome VI, 1816–1819, page 465. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k3299b?rk=21459;2
- Pignier, A.R. (1859). Notice Biographique sur Trois Professeurs, Anciens Élèves de l'Institution des Jeunes Aveugles de Paris. Paris: Imprimerie Buchard-Huzard.
- Roy, N. (2013). "Écriture pour tous." Le Louis Braille, September-October.
- Roy, N. (2019). "Musée et Bibliothèque patrimoniale Valentin Haüy," Canadian Journal of Disability Studies 8(6): 44–64. https://doi.org/10.15353/cjds.v8i6.579
- Weygand, Z. (2003). Vivre Sans Voir : Les aveugles dans la société française du Moyen Age au siècle de Louis Braille. Paris: Editions Creaphis.
- Wilson, E., and Goodspeed, W.A. (1898). Standard History of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Chicago: H.R. Cornell and Company.
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Noëlle Roy, conservatrice (now retired) at the museum and library of the AVH, first encouraged me to investigate Barbier's story and gave me unrestricted access to his papers; Mireille Duhen, a knowledgeable volunteer at AVH, provided ongoing help in countless ways, including transcriptions and photography; Zoubeida Moulfi (now retired) and Xavier Dupont of INJA gave me access to Barbier's letters to Pignier and Braille; Stéphane Mary of the Musée Louis Braille in Coupvray provided documents and commentary; Karen McDaniel Cotton retrieved and photographed documents at the State Archives of Kentucky. I would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers who provided helpful suggestions for revision.
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For example, Michael Mellor, Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius (Boston: National Braille Press, 2006); Lennard Bickel, Triumph Over Darkness: The Life of Louis Braille (London: Bloomsbury, 2015); Jen Bryant, Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille (New York: Knopf, 2016); Hélène Jousse, Les mains de Louis Braille (Paris: Lattès, 2019); a musical, The Braille Legacy, was staged in London in 2017.
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Today known as the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (INJA).
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Ancien capitaine d'artillerie, Barbier avait peut-être éprouvé autrefois combien il pouvait être utile à des officiers en campagne de rédiger des messages dans l'obscurité et éventuellement d'en déchiffrer avec ses doigts.
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« J'ai treize ans, lui cinquante. Je suis aveugle, lui pas. Je suis pauvre, il est riche. Je suis Braille et il est Barbier de la Serre. Je suis seul » se dit l'enfant.
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The brother, Arsène-Guillaume-Joseph Barbier de la Serre (known in the United States as William Delaserre), had served with the Saintonge Regiment during the American wars of independence, married the daughter of a prominent lawyer, Daniel Dulany, and settled in Baltimore.
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John Savary (1765–1814), born Jean Henri Savary de Valcoulon in Lyon, had come to the United States as the agent of one René Rapicault, who had lent money to the state of Virginia and wanted his debt repaid.
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William Delaserre's wife sued for divorce and his mother-in-law left him responsible for her unpaid debts when she and her daughter left Baltimore (details are in the Maryland State Chancery Records).
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The evidence is vague: Henri cites his own previous article in Le Valentin Haüy, March 1947; in that article he cites an 1891 article by Edgard Guilbeau (which makes no mention of Barbier's contacts with indigenous peoples) and information provided by a great-nephew of Barbier's.
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Ce procédé absolument neuf, présente peut-être l'écriture la plus simple et la plus commode qui existe… il y a des occasions où aucune méthode connue ne pourra tenir lieu de l'écriture coupée.
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[C]es règles déterminées d'après le rapport de la grammaire et de l'étymologie, présentent en dernier résultat presque partout les plus grandes différences entres les langues écrites et les langues parlées ; la quantité de lettres inutiles ou impropres dont la prononciation se trouve surchargée en rend l'étude et la lecture très difficiles à apprendre ; et ce qui, selon la simplicité primitive de la théorie alphabétique, n'exigerait que quelques jours d'instructions, occupe à présent des années entières du temps le plus précieux de l'enfance. L'écriture veut aussi être apprise de jeunesse et cultivée avec le plus grand soin. ¶ La forme compliquée des lettres, la différence des pleins et des déliés présentent des difficultés que l'assiduité du travail peut seule surmonter ; cela demande plus de temps que n'en ont généralement à leur disposition les gens de la campagne et les artisans des villes chez qui le besoin de se subvenir à eux-mêmes l'emporte sur celui d'une première éducation ; aussi n'est-il pas rare de rencontrer parmi eux des personnes qui ne savent pas lire, ou qui, sachant lire, ne savent pas écrire, et que désormais l'âge, le travail et les circonstances empêcheront de l'apprendre par les procédés ordinaires.
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Over the course of his life, Barbier altered both grids many times: he changed the order of the sounds in the phonetic grid and sometimes the order of the symbols used to represent them. He also added extra rows to create a 6x6 grid and in one case, a 6x7 grid.
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Les aveugles de naissance, privés, comme les autres, des moyens de pouvoir jamais lire nos livres ni notre écriture, éprouvent en outre les plus grandes difficultés à tracer correctement les figures de nos lettres, ils sont restreints à n'employer que des moyens privés de correspondance uniquement réservés pour leur usage et celui des personnes qui veulent se donner la peine de les apprendre. Sous ces rapports l'écriture ponctuée de la Planche VII, exécutée sans encre ni crayon avec une roulette métallique de ponctuation régulière dont les subressauts se font sentir à la main et les traces restent sensibles au toucher, paroît leur offrir plusieurs avantages ; mais ce n'est que dans les établissemens [sic] consacrés à leur instruction que l'on pourra constater convenablement les résultats.
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The demonstrator was probably Augustin Moulin, then 17 years old, a student who, like Braille, later became a teacher – Barbier mentions Moulin's involvement in a letter written the day after the meeting (Barbier to Pignier, June 20, 1821, INJA).
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Parmi les sciences que l'on enseigne aux aveugles, l'écriture est peut-être celle dans laquelle on a fait le moins de progrès ; les aveugles apprennent promptement à lire, mais fort peu parviennent à écrire.
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Later writers used the term "sonographie" (sonography) to describe Barbier's phonetic method, but Barbier himself never used the word.
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Louis Braille, de même que les autres, avait étudié cette méthode, et, avec la sagacité qui le caractérisait, avait indiqué à M. Barbier plusieurs perfectionnements et résolu quelques difficultés relatives à cette écriture, petits problèmes dont M. Barbier avait depuis longtemps cherché la solution. (Pignier, 1859, 14).
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C'est surtout aux infortunés du dehors privé de toute autre éducation que mon procédé peut être utile.
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Petite anthologie française ou recueil de morceaux choisis par Mr Fonsec et imprimé par Mr Galliod d'après le procédé Barbier (Paris : Les Quinze-Vingts, 1828).
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By chance, one Charles Auguste Barbier died in Paris on April 29, 1841, leading to some confusion about the date of death in some sources, but at his death, Barbier was identified by his full name, Nicolas-Marie-Charles Barbier de la Serre, living in the ninth arrondissement (of the 12 arrondissements that existed before 1860; the ninth included the Ile de la Cité). The death records are available at archives.paris.fr.
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The exception is Zina Weygand, who grounds her research on solid evidence; she has read Barbier's Essai (1815) and many of his letters, which she cites in Vivre Sans Voir (Weygand, 2003).
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Although the use of Braille's writing system was temporarily banned at the school when Pierre-Armand Dufau replaced Pignier as director of the school in 1840, Braille retained the support of friends and colleagues, and the official use of his invention at the school was restored in 1844 through the intervention of deputy director Joseph Guadet (Mellor, 2006, 97–102).
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Lennard Bickel (1988) frequently uses the term "the Captain" (a position Barbier held for two days); Michael Mellor writes about "the irascible middle-aged captain" (Mellor, 2006, 62); and Hélène Jousse repeatedly calls him "le militaire" or "le capitaine." Bryant (2016) does not use Barbier's name at all; he is simply "a French army captain."
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