Hixson’s Hoardings – Tidbits, gleanings and gossip from your Kentucky Gateway Museum Center-

In the Dark is KYGMC’s newest exhibit! It concentrates on five aspects of the dark: the world at night; cave environments; underground environments; the deep sea; and how humans relate to darkness. It is a wonderful way to introduce yourself to the unique creatures that dwell in darkness and how they relate to the environments they inhabit as well as to each other.

If you are interested in coming or in bringing a group, the museum can arrange a series of educational sessions on how creatures communicate in the dark, the amazing eye and how humans creatively responded to darkness. In 1808, Charles Barbier developed ‘Night Writing’ or sonography in response to Napoleon’s demand for a code that soldiers could use to communicate silently and without light at night. Each two digit code represented a character and it was based on sounds to let soldiers share top secret information. Barbier’s system was found to be too difficult for soldiers to learn and was rejected by the military, but after a visit to the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, he thought the children might be able to use it in some way.

Louis Braille was three years old when he injured one of his eyes with an awl in his father’s harness shop. The wound got infected and spread to the other eye and he became blind in both eyes. In the early 1800’s, a family’s survival depended on its members doing their share of daily labor. “Blind, deaf, or otherwise physically challenged children were often abandoned or given over to a traveling ‘master,’ who taught them to sing, dance, or perform tricks for money, much like circus animals.” Louis’s family was determined that he would avoid such a fate and encouraged his independence and education. He couldn’t learn everything just by listening and at 10, he received a scholarship to the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris. Still, the teachers mostly talked to the students and the books had raised letters that were very hard to read. When Barbier shared his 12 dot system with the students, they too found it difficult. Louis remembered playing dominos with his mother and trimmed the 12 dots to 6. Instead of sounds, his dots represented letters. His earliest version included a few of the dashes that Captain Barbier had used, but as he continued to refine it, “he eliminated the dashes and added numbers, punctuation, and musical notation.” At the age of 15, he published his first braille book. The public was skeptical and the blind students had to study braille on their own. “Even at the Royal Institution, where Louis taught after he graduated, braille wasn’t taught until after his death.”

Louis published books on the use of Braille in music, mathematics, and mapping. With the help of Alexandre Fournier, he developed decapoint, a system that allowed blind and sighted people to write to each other. In addition, Louis mastered the cello and the organ and with his friend, Pierre Foucault, who was also a blind musician and mechanic, invented a typewriter-like machine for raphigraphy that was an early version of dot-matrix printing. In 1833, Louis became a “full professor and taught history, grammar, geography, and math.

Louis Braille died two days after his 43rd birthday of tuberculosis and was buried in the little town of Coupvray where he was born. On the 100th anniversary of his death, his body was moved to the Pantheon in Paris – the final resting place of France’s greatest men and women. When we think of great inventors, we usually think of Edison, DaVinci, Carver and other men or women. Braille was a child when he invented a reading and writing system that changed the lives of the visually impaired giving them the freedom to learn, exchange ideas, and to improve their lives. He did this working alone and without public support and financial backing. The system is still used today and found on ATM’s, in public buildings and even offered on menus at some restaurants. Many smartphones and tablets also provide options for converting standard text to speech or to Braille. “No one so young has developed something that has had such a lasting and profound impact on so many people.”

Readers may email questions to [email protected] @ Kentucky Gateway Museum Center, Maysville, KY