From out of darkness, a light: Part 2

Published 5:34 pm Friday, July 7, 2023

In his first year at the school for blind boys, Louis studied history, grammar, arithmetic and geography, but the subject he loved most was music. Here blindness was no obstacle and soon Louis became a gifted organist and pianist. His other favorite class was knitting where he made slippers which were sold to earn money for the institute.

During his second year, he won prizes for music and arithmetic. But, it was during Louis’s third year that his life changed. That’s when he met Captain Barbier, a retired artillery captain and the inventor of a secret military code based on dots and dashes punched into strips of cardboard. When turned over, the raised impressions could be easily felt with the fingers. Using this code, orders could be sent to the front line in the dark simply by reading the impressions. It was called “nightwriting.”

By breaking down each word into sounds, Barbier recognized that this could be helpful to blind people. Each sound was represented by a different combination of dots and dashes. “Soundwriting” was replacing “nightwriting.”

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The moment Louis first used soundwriting, he grew very excited as he discovered the dots were much more sensitive to his touch than the old impressions. He was learning a new language! Using sheets of heavy embossing paper with a board to rest them on and a pointed stylus to punch out the dots and dashes, he practiced writing sentences.

Unfortunately the system was not perfect as it had no provisions for spelling, punctuation or numbers. Many dots were needed to make a single word resulting in slow, awkward reading. And many of the symbols were too big to read with a single touch of the finger.

Soon the students became discouraged and gave up on sonography. It was just too difficult. But, Louis persisted. Even as a child learning to find his way with a cane, he again demonstrated strict tenacity. This same stubborn streak of character would not allow him to quit.

Hoping to simplify Barbier’s system, Louis began to experiment using different combinations of dots and dashes. Before long the captain heard about it. He hastened to the school to meet the student who was tinkering with his invention. There he was taken aback to find himself face-to-face with a skinny twelve-year-old.

Louise had rehearsed over and over what he wanted to tell Barbier. Speaking politely, choosing his words with care, he praised sonography. At the same time he was not afraid to point out its drawbacks.

The captain was a proud military man who was used to giving orders. More than anything he hoped the French government would adopt his system as the official method of teaching blind students to read and write. Now, here was a mere schoolboy challenging his invention!

Nevertheless, Barbier listened. Soon he realized sonography could be simplified in certain ways just as Louis was suggesting. Still he was not budging from his basic idea of the dots and dashes representing sounds. Barbier insisted that it absolutely could not be changed. He defended his system with such feeling—and in such a commanding voice—that Louis felt intimidated.

From then on Louis experimented quietly arranging and rearranging the combinations of dots. But, sadly to no avail.

He was almost ready to give up when a special school event was announced that renewed his courage. There was to be a celebration for Valentin Hauy, the man who had founded the school for the blind years before Louis was born.

Hauy had been away from Paris for many years trying to organize more schools like this throughout Europe. He returned discouraged and penniless. But, the Institute had not forgotten him. In August of 1821, the students and teachers gathered to pay tribute to the old man.

By now Hauy was seventy-six and his own sight was failing. Thus, like the students, he had to be guided around the school. Even so, it was a joyous occasion in which he visited the classes, ate with the boys, and met each child individually. When Louis felt the bony hands of the legendary founder clasp his own, he was overcome with emotion. He wanted desperately to tell him of his ideas, but said nothing.

That evening, everyone gathered for a banquet and musical program. When it came time for Hauy to speak, he groped his way across the room with the aid of guiding cords.

Hauy then told the boys of his lifetime struggles and triumphs in his service to the blind. Much had been accomplished, but there was still so very far to go. The founder never returned to the school. He died a few months later, totally blind.

Meanwhile, Louis could not forget the touch of his hands as if the old master had passed him a torch. He vowed to take that torch and hold it high so that it would bring light to the blind. More determined than ever, Louis promised himself he would continue to experiment.

To be continued.