Before Braille Was King, It Had to Win the War of the Dots


Stevie Wonder had the honor of opening the envelope containing the Song of the Year winner at the Grammy Awards last month. That sounds like the setup for a joke, but the card was printed in Braille, so Wonder was the only one on stage who could have read it. The Braille Institute of America printed the card for the award ceremony. The scene inspired Ben Marks to look into the history of Braille writers. Frenchman Louis Braille developed the system in 1824, but the machines that print it arose from a battle between two competing systems developed in the 1890s.

The idea for the first machine, the Braille-writer, came to its inventor, Frank Hall, when Hall was serving as the superintendent of the Illinois Institution for the Education of the Blind in Jacksonville. The idea was planted in 1890, shortly after his arrival at the institution, when Hall purchased 15 regular typewriters for his students. Hall was what we’d describe today as an early adopter, using an Edison phonograph (an 1877 invention) as a dictating device to help students practice at their keyboards. Indeed, Hall was so comfortable with the work of his students that he had them type his personal correspondence.

When they weren’t typing his correspondence on regular typewriters, Hall’s students read a form of tactile type with their fingers called New York Point. In the early 1890s, Braille was widely used throughout the world, but it was only one of more than 30 tactile systems used by the blind in the United States. Hall noticed, though, that his students had learned Braille themselves, choosing it over New York Point for their private correspondence. “When Hall saw that,” Ball says, “he thought, ‘If the students prefer Braille, maybe we ought to become a Braille school.’ He made that decision very early on.”

By 1891, Hall turned his attention to giving his students a better tool to communicate with each other. At the time, when a blind person wanted to write something for people to read later, they’d use a tablet and a stylus. Aided by a guide, they would press the stylus into the paper, creating patterns of dots, which could be read when the paper was turned over. “That meant every letter had to be formed backwards, and you had to work right to left,” Ball says. “It was quite time-consuming. Everybody recognized that typewriters were important for communication,” he adds. “The blind were asking, ‘Why can’t we get one, too?’”

So Hall and an engineer designed and built the Hall Braille-writer. But Braille wasn’t the only format being taught to the blind -there was also New York Point, which had its own advocates. William Bell Wait was one of them, and he invented the Kleidograph to make writing in New York Point easier. We know which won, but the differences between them and how the battle between the two systems (and their writing devices) played out is an interesting story you can read at Collectors Weekly. 

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