Charles Petzold

Braille's Birthday

January 4, 2006

Google's logo today reminds us that it's the 197th birthday of Louis Braille, who at the age of 15 invented the code that bears his name.

From the earliest conceptions of my book Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software, I wanted to include a chapter analyzing Braille as a 64-bit code. Yet, when it came time for research, I couldn't find much. Most of the biographies of Louis Braille were written for children, and books that comprehensively discussed Braille encoding were hard to come by. (My resources at the time included the Internet c. 1998-9 and the New York Public Library.) Even less information was available about Charles Barbier, whose "night writing" system was adapted by Braille for his code. I don't read French, but I consulted some French biographical dictionaries on the shelves in the Main Reading Room at the NYPL, and found nothing.

Still, I'm happy with the short (7-page) chapter I eventually wrote for Code. (The books I used for that chapter are listed in the Annotated Bibliography.) I see today by the External Links sections in the Wikipedia entries for Louis Braille and the code braille (which Wikipedia spells in lowercase) that there seem to be a few more online resources these days.

It's three years before Louis Braille's bicentennial. Perhaps someone will grace us with a comprehensive biography and history of this remarkable writing system.

Correction: Of course, Braille is not a "64-bit code." It's a 6-bit code capable of 64 unique characters.