The Slate & Stylus: History of a Braille Technology
By Joanna Pearce, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History, York University
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, tangible print that enabled the blind to read could be divided up into two large groups: line and point. Line print was based off embossed Roman letters – think of an official seal on a document that you can trace your fingers over and feel each letter individually. These could not only be felt by the blind, but could be read by the sighted, making it far easier for a sighted teacher to help his or her students learn to read. Different schools disagreed on the best font and size of these letters, but in general the idea was the same across North America and Europe. Blind people would trace each letter with their finger before moving on to the next.
Point print – of which braille is just one example of many – used a series of raised dots to represent the letters and numbers of the parent language, as well as musical notation. As the point prints evolved, they also adopted a series of contractions and capitalisation rules.
The Braille System was the first point print to be introduced to North America. It was brought to the Missouri Institution for the Education of the Blind in St. Louis in the early 1860s, and educators there were quick to sing its praises. While it had many advantages, including taking up a smaller amount of space on the page compared to line prints, its biggest was that the blind could be taught to write in braille themselves. Thus, instead of having students rely on their own memories -- or the school investing in multiple copies of expensive line print books – teachers could dictate the lessons to students, who could then take their own notes. In the 1865 Annual Report of Missouri school, the trustees wrote: “By the Braille system the pupil is enabled, not only to write with greater facility, but to read what he has written, so that he can for himself add to his library whatever he can transcribe from our standard literature.”
This is an example of a Braille guide, the design of which has not changed much since the 1860s. Braille letters, written in cells, consist of between one and six raised dots arranged vertically. Writers would close the paper inside of the guide. The stylus, a blunt tool used to make the dots, would push up the paper in the proper formation. This made a raised dot on the other side of the page. Thus, braille was written from right to left, mirroring the way the text would be read (from left to right). This particular guide would allow the writer to transcribe four lines of text before opening the guide, lowering it on the page, and starting on the next sentence. There were multiple types of guides, and each one had its own mechanism for alerting the writer as to how far to lower the guide on the page.