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Photograph. A formal portrait showing a child reading a raised print book with his fingers to three younger students standing at a table, ca. 1900.  Two boys and a girl standing next to science projects:  a plasticene chart of the solar system, a volcano, and dinosaurs and amphibians made of plasticene, ca. 1940.  Anne Sullivan fingerspelling into a young Helen Keller?s hand, ca. 1889.  Young men and boys with brass instruments, ca. 1860.
Photograph. Formal portrait of a man in his thirties with brown wavy hair and a short beard. He is wearing wire rim glasses with extra lenses on the side.

Joel West Smith, Perkins teacher and inventor of American Braille, South Boston,1869

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Books for the Blind.

Educators called for reading and writing systems for people who are blind as early as the sixteenth century. Some individuals experimented with pinpricked alphabets and string glued to paper, but they were laborious and time-consuming. It wasn?t until 1786 that Valentin Ha?y, founder of the world?s first school for the blind in Paris, devised a printing system that could be read with the fingertips. Ha?y used ordinary printing type, cast in reverse, pressing it against the back of the paper to create embossed Roman letters. The system was improved in 1816 by Ha?y?s successor at the Paris school, Theodor Guilli?, who designed a more open design of the round-hand type. While Ha?y had used a copperplate press, Guilli? used a common printing press with two people pulling on the bar to create the additional pressure needed to emboss paper.

Louis Braille, a 15-year-old student at the Paris school for the blind, developed the braille system in 1824. For the tactile reader, dots were much easier to discern than other raised letter types. During the next several years Braille refined the system and added a notation for music. He published a book outlining his dot system in 1829, the same year that Perkins was incorporated. Braille?s proposal received little attention, however, and there is no evidence that Howe knew anything about it.

In 1832, the Royal Scottish Society for the Arts announced a competition for the ?best alphabet and method of printing? for the blind. It was the first of several such competitions during the 19th century, and popular response was strong; competitors included people who were blind and sighted from all walks of life. The entries represented the three major types of raised print systems for readers who are blind: Roman letters, dots, and ?arbitrary? characters (symbols arbitrarily assigned to represent letters). The Royal Scottish Society for the Arts prize went to type founder Edmund Fry. His system, like the winning systems in most of these competitions, was based on Roman letters. The judges believed these raised alphabet systems were superior to dot or symbol systems because both blind and sighted individuals could read them; additionally, they did not require teachers to learn a new system. The judges, who most often were sighted, gave little consideration to the ease with which the system could be read tactilely.

Printing tactile books efficiently and economically called for some innovation. Jacob Snider, of the Pennsylvania Institute for the Instruction of the Blind, produced the first raised-print book in the United States in 1833. Snider engraved the text on copper plates in a round hand similar to handwriting, then pressed the plates against the front of the page. Although this method produced clean letters of even depth, with a smooth surrounding paper surface, it was quickly abandoned. Later books printed in the United States were produced in the conventional European method, by stamping type into the paper from the back.

Samuel Gridley Howe, director of Perkins School for the Blind, developed an embossed alphabet called Boston Line Type in 1835. Because it was compact and had few confusing flourishes, he considered it vastly superior to the fonts used in Europe and at the Pennsylvania Institute. Howe commissioned a printer, Stephen Preston Ruggles, to design a press that could produce Boston Line Type books. Ruggles? press produced books until 1881, when it was replaced with a more efficient design.

Raised alphabets did not offer a practical writing system for people who were blind. They were also extremely difficult to read tactilely, and many students in the 19th century were unable to master them. Gradually more schools in Europe began adopting Louis Braille?s dot system. In 1860, Dr. Simon Pollak brought braille to the Missouri School for the Blind after observing its use in European schools. At about the same time, William Bell Wait, Superintendent of the New York Institution for the Blind, decided to completely abandon raised print. He tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade his colleagues in Boston and Philadelphia to adopt the braille system being used in Missouri and Europe.

Unable to persuade other American educators to adopt braille, William Bell Wait set out to develop a new, superior dot system. In his opinion, the braille system was wasteful, with each cell taking the same amount of space on the page regardless of the number of dots it contains. Wait?s New York Point used a horizontally oriented dot system with a variable base that was more compact than braille. However, the method used to indicate capitals and some punctuation was cumbersome and therefore not often used by publishers. The result was that New York Point text was not a true transcription of the original text.

William Bell Wait?s New York Point offered a system that could be both read and written by students who were blind. In spite of its frequent lack of capitals and punctuation, it was hailed as an improvement over raised alphabets. In 1871, educators at the meeting of the American Association of Instructors of the Blind (AAIB) endorsed it and recommended it for use in the schools for the blind in the United States.

Although 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. Joel W. Smith, a Perkins piano tuning teacher who was blind, created yet another alternative to embossed alphabets, called Modified or American braille. He was convinced that the best system would use raised dots, but found flaws in both New York Point and Louis Braille?s design. He considered braille faster and easier to read, but believed that reassigning the characters would make it even more efficient, both for reading and writing. ?? [H]e assigned the characters having the fewest dots to the letters recurring with the highest frequency in the English language. To keep down the bulkiness of embossed books he evolved a set of word contractions, assigning characters to them on the same frequency of recurrence principle.? Perkins students embraced the system immediately, using it for class notes and correspondence with one another. Smith presented Modified braille at the American Association of Instructors of the Blind (AAIB) in 1878. But having already endorsed New York Point in 1871, the teachers? association rejected the new system.

Because New York Point texts often omitted capitals, apostrophes, and hyphens, teachers and readers became increasingly dissatisfied with the writing system. In 1892, at the meeting of the American Association of Instructors of the Blind (AAIB), a group of superintendents of schools for the blind discussed choosing a braille system for use in their schools. Committee members included Joel Smith and Edward Allen, then the Director of the Philadelphia school. Allen, a former teacher at Perkins, was familiar with Smith?s Modified braille and helped persuade six of the seven school supervisors to select it. Later the name was changed to American braille.

Frank H. Hall, superintendent of the Illinois School for the Blind, invented a portable personal braille writer, which he introduced at the 1892 meeting of the American Association of Instructors of the Blind (AAIB). The first such machine to be designed like a typewriter, the Hall braille writer greatly improved the speed of writing. Other innovators soon developed similar devices to produce braille and New York Point. In 1893, the capacity for producing books increased greatly with the development of a powerful braille stereotype maker. This machine created a printing plate with an entire page of braille embossed on it, eliminating the need to set each individual letter on each page by hand. The braille stereotype was mounted between the pressure plates on a printing press, covered with thick paper and a layer of rubber, and squeezed together under great pressure. Many schools, including Perkins, began producing American braille using this method.

Among the teachers of people who were blind, there were advocates of New York Point, Modified braille, English braille, and embossed alphabets. The disagreement escalated into a feud which continued for years. Professionals in the field often stubbornly adhered to a favored system. Because books were sometimes available only in one format, many students, including Helen Keller, were compelled to learn several different codes. At one time the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), the official book publisher, published in Boston Line Type, Modified braille, and New York Point.

In a frequently quoted letter to the 1905 convention of the American Association of Workers for the Blind, Charles W. Holmes, president of the Perkins Alumni Association, pleaded for the adoption of a uniform code. ?In order to avail himself of the full range of literature (which at best is woefully limited) the blind reader must learn, and keep well up in, all these codes ... How long would our seeing friends stand for such a state of affairs in ink type? Imagine for a moment the ridiculous situation that would arise, if the daily papers published in Boston had an entirely different system of characters from those used by New York publishers, and that a Philadelphia man could not read either without special training, because his own city had adopted a third, as unlike the others as the Chinese characters are unlike the Roman.? In spite of Holmes?s eloquent advocacy, it took great effort and many years for the universal code to become a reality.

The Uniform Type Committee, formed in 1905, agreed that there should be a single uniform code for all English-speaking readers, and that the embossed alphabets should be discontinued. The committee devised a legibility test and discovered that British braille was superior to Modified braille and New York Point.

The simplest solution would have been to recommend the adoption of British braille in the U.S., but many disliked British braille because it had too many contractions. Instead, in 1913 the Uniform Type Committee presented yet another system named ?Standard Dot,? which attempted to combine the advantages of all three systems: Modified braille, British braille, and New York Point. The British, however, refused to undergo the expense and disruption of imposing yet another code, having done so only a few years earlier during the 1905 revision of British braille. ?Standard Dot? was abandoned by the Uniform Type Committee.

The American Commission on Uniform Type next proposed adopting British braille Grade 2 with many simplifications and modifications. This proposal also was rejected by the British National Uniform Type Committee. The U.S. Commission decided to adopt its own recommendations, calling the new reading system Grade 1? braille. Readable by both U.S. and British readers, Grade 1? was as close to a uniform code as international divisions would permit.

In 1932, an official committee of three traveled to England with the charge of agreeing upon a uniform code. In the Treaty of London, the adoption of Grade 2 was agreed upon. The Library of Congress adopted Grade 2 immediately, and it has been in use ever since. However, a few differences still remain, negotiations continue, and English-speaking braille readers throughout the world continue to hope for a truly uniform braille code.

Suggested citation for scholars:

McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. (2004) Books for the Blind.. Perkins History Museum, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA.

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