Braille Literacy Awareness Month: The Genius of Louis Braille and the Raphigraphe Printer

miniature portrait of Louis Braille

During Braille Literacy Awareness Month, VisionAware is celebrating the life and work of Louis Braille (January 4, 1809 – January 6, 1852), the creator of the braille code, which revolutionized reading and writing for blind people throughout the world.

Our month-long Louis Braille celebration has featured the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) online Louis Braille Museum and the definitive biography Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius, authored by C. Michael Mellor and published by National Braille Press.

AFB’s online Louis Braille Museum is a rich repository of photographs, documents, and historical texts that illustrate the life and legacy of Louis Braille. Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius is the first full-color biography to include 31 never-before-translated letters, some written by Braille’s own hand, along with documents, photographs, and artistic works from a curator’s private archives in France.

More about Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius

Cover of Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius

As I explored this definitive Louis Braille biography, I was fascinated to learn that, in addition to developing the braille code, Braille collaborated in the development of the raphigraphe.

The raphigraphe, or needle-writer, was a precursor to the dot-matrix printer that enabled blind persons to write in a type of script that could be understood by sighted persons.

The following passage details the events that led to the creation of the raphigraphe and is excerpted, with permission, from Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius, pages 86-95:

The Scribe Problem

Students at the school for the blind remained away from home much of the year – some too poor even to go home for vacations. Letter-writing was the sole means of staying in touch with family and friends. But writing techniques at the school had not changed since the time of [Valentin Haüy, founder of the first school for the blind in Europe in 1874]. Dictating a letter to a scribe had serious drawbacks. Beyond the obvious one of privacy, it was difficult to find scribes.

Worse, the scarcely literate scribes wrote phonetically, putting down on paper what they thought they heard, resulting in run-on words and idiosyncratic spelling…. Moreover, the dependency on scribes, the lack of a practical method that blind individuals could use to write to those who were sighted, was precisely the kind of social barrier Haüy had been determined to overcome all those years ago.

The Ability to Write

Braille resolved to find a remedy. In approaching the problem, it helped that Louis had a good grasp of spatial relations, which was reinforced whenever he wrote a letter or note by hand. With characteristic analytical skill, he deduced that all print letters were basically square at the center – a shape that could be represented tactually by four raised dots. Ascenders and descenders, e.g., those on an h or a g that made up the remainder of the letter, could be depicted by three dots embossed vertically above or below the square.

Ten-Dot Writing

Braille called his system decapoint (ten-dot) because it used a 10×10 dot matrix. Decapoint enabled blind people not only to read and write but also to review the document themselves. Sighted people could also use this technique to write to those who were blind. It was written by using a stylus with a rounded tip to press into a sheet of paper only those dots in the matrix that would form the outlines of a printer letter. If necessary, the writer could ascertain which dots had to be pressed into the paper by consulting the table Louis Braille had prepared in embossed print.


Despite the breakthrough Louis made with decapoint, the process remained slow and arduous, and only a few words would fit on a page. Fortunately, Braille knew a brilliant mechanic, Pierre-François-Victor Foucault (1797-1871), who had been a student at the Royal Institution for Blind Youth until the year before Louis was admitted. He devised a machine, later known as the raphigraphe (needle-writer), which mechanized and miniaturized Braille’s new method for writing print.

photo of the raphigraphe

The raphigraphe, the first dot-matrix printer, circa 1840

Simple in concept, the raphigraphe required instrument-quality precision in its construction: It had ten pistons arranged like a fan so that they converged to produce a vertical line of dots as high as ordinary print. The fingers of the right hand pushed down a piston that pressed a rod with a sharp point against the paper, where it made a tiny hole or a carbon copy of a dot.

Until the appearance of a practical typewriter in 1867, the raphigraphe was the most user-friendly piece of equipment available to blind people who wanted to write to those who could see. It is a largely forgotten product of Braille’s genius.

Raphigraphe Letters

Several letters Louis wrote by raphigraphe have survived, and are as readable today as when they were written:

Louis Braille's raphigraphe writing

A raphigraphe letter, in French, from Louis Braille

How to Buy the Book

Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius is available for purchase at the National Braille Press website, in the following formats: (a) braille, (b) ebraille (CD-ROM), (c) ebraille (download), and (d) print. For a limited time, the price of the braille or print edition is $20.00 (regularly $35.00).

Visit the National Braille Press website to learn more about the Center for Braille Innovation and the Louis Braille Touch of Genius Prize for Innovation.

Resources for Braille

The following resources can help you learn more about braille:

Photo Credits

  • A miniature portrait of Louis Braille on ivory and Louis Braille raphigraphe letter: La Maison Natale de Louis Braille
  • Raphigraphe: Musée Valentin Haüy
  • All images and text are reprinted with permission from National Braille Press. Thank you to Diane L. Croft, Publisher, National Braille Press, for her assistance with all source material.