Volume X Number 1, August 2004

Dots And Doubts: Technology And Turmoil Continue To Flourish After Braille's First Century and a Half

B.T. Kimbrough ([email protected])
Vice President, Enabling Technologies

REVOLUTION AND REVELATION

When Louis Braille began experimenting with the system of written language that would ultimately immortalize his name, he and his fellow students at the Royal School for the Blind in Paris quickly found themselves embroiled in a kind of "dotted revolution."

By 1829, when Braille published the first official description of his system, many blind students avidly embraced the ability to write as well as read, which was not possible with the older systems of raised print letters. Yet, the autonomy offered by Braille's fingertip-sized letters, which could so quickly be punched on slate and paper without the aid of vision, was not immediately welcomed by their educators. One administrator went so far as to ban the use of Braille at the school. Students continued to use it in secret, even at the risk of severe physical punishment.

Stubbornly, the dots and their practitioners persisted until Braille's system was finally re-instated, only a few years before his death in 1852. In 1854, Braille's six-dot code was officially recognized by France as the medium of literacy for its blind. Ironically, this first quarter century in the history of Braille set the exact pattern of advances in information access on one hand, and political turmoil on the other, which has characterized the history of Braille ever after.

When Louis Braille published his second and final description of the 63-character code in 1837, the basic literary system itself was so logical and practical that subsequent efforts to "improve" it have been either abandoned as unnecessary or discredited as counterproductive. The technology for making dots into books, however, cried out for advancement. The manual slates, on which students punched out their notes and lessons by hand with a stylus one dot at a time, could not produce books.

The only available medium for mechanically pressing Braille dots into paper was a primitive set of fixed type with each character containing a full six-dot cell. In order to create the character "a," for example, someone had to chisel, pound, or break off five unwanted dots, leaving the single desired dot for the Braille "a" in the correct position. To make a "b", skilled (or at least persistent) hands had to get rid of four superfluous dots, leaving the correct two. Louis Braille's students and colleagues undertook this grueling and tedious method of typesetting in order to bring the world's first braille books into existence.

The early adherents of braille were indeed revolutionaries for declining raised print and embracing something uniquely tactile in spite of resistance from their sighted "helpers". The Industrial Revolution next propelled braille into a kind of a mass medium by making possible the great Braille printing houses, with their giant presses turning out millions of well embossed schoolbook pages each year. Later, more advances with smaller technology made possible regional and local services, which today offer Braille menus, newsletters, train schedules, religious documents and much more, in dozens of countries around the world.

Fortunately, much of this invaluable innovation has been well and thoroughly documented at the Marie and Eugene Callahan Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind, in Louisville, Kentucky. Museum Curator Carol Tobe has deftly summarized much of this valuable information in her article "Embossed Printing in the United States", which was published in the anthology Braille Into The Next Millennium by the Library of Congress National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.
Braille Access in the Late Twentieth Century

Computer technology offered realistic prospects for two productive new channels of braille access. Plate-generated press braille for large printing houses and embosser-driven "pressless" Braille, available from a desktop, have revolutionized braille publishing. Yet, these two concepts evolved from distant dreams into pervasive realities in less than forty years.

In the 1960's the word computer called up visions of a vast system of water-cooled tubes, rotating drums, and file cabinets full of punch-cards. Typically, such a colossus would take up all or most of a special building and cost more than a large pipe organ. Only a major institution such as a university or a large corporation could hope to provide the space, the controlled environment, and the resources for a computer of this kind.

When the American Printing House for the Blind commissioned, and put into operation, a computer to translate and emboss braille onto plates which could be placed directly into a high-speed press, it was a dramatic and historic achievement. As a demonstration project, it was a huge success. Many of us who were high school or college-aged braille readers at the time thought it nearly miraculous. But APH and IBM owned all the rights as the joint developers of the system, and it was never offered for sale to other institutions.

DOTSYS, the project that launched the age of computer braille as we know it, began in 1969. In the year that the first men walked on the moon, designing a transportable braille computer program, even giving it away to anyone with the resources to use it, did not seem too large a challenge. DOTSYS was developed initially for mainstreamed blind students in the Atlanta, Georgia, public schools, and eventually became the core of thirty braille production systems in several countries. Under direction of Robert Gildea, the software was put together by MITRE Corporation, a not-for-profit corporation with extensive research experience working for government clients such as the United States Air Force. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology signed on to develop embossing hardware to get the hoped-for braille translations onto paper.

To supervise and write most of the DOTSYS program, Gildea hired a young engineer named Joseph E. Sullivan. Once DOTSYS was completed (and carefully placed in the public domain according to plan), Joe Sullivan helped to establish a commercial partnership for braille software development. In July 1975, the partnership of Gildea, Simpson and Sullivan was formed in Duxbury, Massachusetts. The next year, they incorporated under the name Duxbury Systems, arguably the world's first braille software company.

The assignment of designing and building the world's first braille embosser was a potentially daunting challenge even for the likes of MIT. Although blind computer programmers had been successfully generating braille print-outs of their program code on narrow paper tape since the early sixties, the braille dots themselves were often nothing more than print periods, struck by a teletype with the impact turned all the way up. The software routines for shaping the periods into readable braille characters were devised by the programmers themselves.

Working under the direction of Professor Robert Mann, MIT engineer George Dalrymple devised a much faster embosser, which would make uniform dots across a book-sized page -- roughly 38 characters wide and twenty-five lines deep. The finished product, which was called BrailleEmboss, appeared on time along with the DOTSYS software, and began serving blind Atlanta students in 1970. As a non-profit entity, MIT was in no position to manufacture the BrailleEmboss for general sale. But BrailleEmboss surely had a strong influence on Guy Carbonneau's LED-120 embosser, which was under serious development by the mid-seventies. Carbonneau and several associates had been working on a paper tape embosser design since their college days in the late sixties at the University of Rochester. Although at least two other entities were working on similar designs in 1969, Carbonneau et al. seem to have been the only ones to incorporate (in 1971) and attempt mass production, setting up a plant in Stuart, Florida, in 1974.

Agency, printing house, and school administrators had nearly boundless enthusiasm for computerized braille translation almost literally from the moment a paper describing the APH project was presented at a conference in 1968. By the following year, at least a dozen engineers from several different countries were working to develop translators for large computers in one or another of the prevailing programming languages of the day. By 1973, some of this work was well advanced, and the DOTSYS project, previously described, was virtually finished. Clearly, it was time to share information, so that resources wouldn't be wasted solving the same problems repeatedly.

In March, 1973, pioneering researchers from at least two continents gathered at Germany's Munster University for what would be the first of several international conferences on computerized braille. These conferences continued at intervals of two or three years until 1990. By then, issues concerning mainframe and minicomputers had given way to other technical matters, such as the use of optical character scanners to cut data input costs, problems associated with difficult written languages for which braille translators were still needed, and effective handling of formatting challenges posed by the many popular microcomputer word processors of the time, such as WordPerfect and WordStar.

Meanwhile, thanks to the groundbreaking work of indefatigable programmers such as David Holladay, Charles Cook, Chuck Hallenbeck, and Joe Sullivan, commercial braille translation software had become available for personal computers. Holladay's Braille-Edit program allowed Apple Computer users to enter, edit, and translate text. They could also enter complex pages directly into Grade Two braille and embed formatting commands oriented to braille layout, which is designed with far more emphasis on space conservation than print. Cook's translator, which was written under sponsorship of the National Federation of the Blind, was eventually offered at no cost to users of the MS-DOS, Windows, and Linux operating systems. Indeed, even the source code for NFBTRANS was offered to the public in the hope that future programmers might add to its capabilities-which several have done over the past ten years.

By the early nineties much of the software and hardware used in large-scale braille production was being supplied by the commercial providers who had begun to emerge in the mid-seventies. These companies, seeking ever broader markets for their embossers and translators, had begun to encourage and foster the revolutionary notion that "you don't have to have a million dollars to invest in equipment to set up a braille production facility." The argument was proving persuasive. Braille translators could now run effectively on Apple Macintosh and IBM microcomputers costing less than $1,500, a far cry from the six-figure expenditures for the previous generation of giant mainframes. The translation software itself could be bought for $500 or less, and there were several products from which to choose, at least on the MS-DOS platform.

There were also several companies making braille embossers by the nineties, and a few of these were capable of producing two or three 200-page braille volumes per hour. Three companies were even producing interpoint embossers, which could economize on paper costs by brailling on both sides of the page.

Also, by the early nineties, optical scanning hardware and software had evolved from being an extremely expensive, high-maintenance, and inconsistent data entry solution (as they were in the eighties) into a practical, if flawed, resource, which could be bought and maintained for less than $10,000 per year. OCR systems could not then (and cannot now) be relied upon as an input source for textbooks with complex formats, heavy components of math or science notation, foreign language, or music study. Such documents continue to require the services of a skilled Grade Two braille transcriber with knowledge of multiple braille codes. What the scanning systems of even twelve years ago could do was save valuable resources by generating reasonably accurate electronic files of literary and other simply formatted works. Generally, these documents could be accurately translated and embossed in braille with only moderate or slight editing.

For an initial investment of less than $100,000, it was plausible to create a small braille publishing facility, which would offer certain new and practical advantages over some larger competitors. For thousands of copies of anything, one would still turn to a traditional braille printing house. But such institutions are at a tremendous disadvantage when producing one, two, or a dozen copies. Their production processes are bound to plate-making devices and large presses, which involve high labor costs for setup and operation. When applying these costs to thousands of copies of any document, the printing house achieves a competitive unit rate for sale, although still much higher than the cost of standard ink print. But brailling a dozen copies of even a simple textbook would be ruinous for a printing house, unless it charged a thousand dollars per braille volume. On the other hand, an embosser-based system with volunteer optical scanner operators could fully recover publishing costs at far less cost per volume.

Thus, for the first time ever, small organizations could offer "custom braille." These short runs of textbooks for specialized students, restaurant menus, individualized examination books, bus schedules, board minutes, or class hand-outs could include any worthwhile document someone wanted to buy in small numbers. Smaller nations could, for the first time, launch a local braille facility, instead of relying upon distant providers with other language priorities. Even in countries not so small, such as India and South Korea, new computer braille translators in their national languages launched Braille production facilities for the first time to serve the needs of their large populations.

Today, as equipment costs continue to fall due to competition and improving technology, many local agencies in this country have added custom braille to their list of services. A few entrepreneurial blind individuals have personally gone into the braille publishing business, hoping to make a profit by competitively embossing and binding commercial documents such as menus for chain restaurants and product manuals for manufacturers of mainstream electronic products. Modest braille publishing is coming for the first time to Vietnam, Cambodia, Zimbabwe, and Bhutan. Major braille publishing facilities are coming in Brazil, South Africa, Thailand, and South Korea, to name only a few of the leading countries in the current microcomputer, embosser-driven braille revolution.

Braille access through refreshable displays, the popularity of portable notetakers, and library Braille book collections posted on the internet for direct use by the reader (with no presses or embossers involved) continue to expand the reach of Braille still further.

LINGERING DOUBTS

Without question, more braille is more available to more people today than at any time since dots first appeared under the fingers of Louis Braille in the early 1820's. One can only wish that Louis Braille and the students who helped him chisel away at those solid blocks of type in 1837 could have known how their dotted revolution would spread and grow in less than two centuries. How thrilled these students and their mentor would be if they could know the rich variety of braille documents which spring from today's technologies to the fingers of the fortunate few who know how to use them.

Perhaps it is just as well that they could not know all that lay ahead, for then they would also have learned of the persistent doubts and repeated cries of obsolescence concerning their hard-won system of reading and writing. We can easily imagine the incredulity of Braille and his colleagues at the recurring contention of some that "braille is no longer needed", because of recorded books, computerized speech, cheap handheld scanners, better tactile graphics, surgically implanted artificial vision-whatever.

Because of these many hopeful advances, so often promising more in independence than they ultimately deliver, today's blind students sometimes do not get the opportunities to learn braille, which would empower them to use all of today's resources. However, even after 150 years of dots alternating with doubts, braille remains the only system of reading and writing in the world available to totally blind people today.

Author's Note: At the time this article was written, the author was serving as Vice-President of Enabling Technologies, a manufacturer of braille embossers. For about half of its thirty-year history, this company did business under its original name of Triformation Systems Inc. For about two years, beginning in 1983, the author worked directly for Guy Carbonneau, whose work is briefly discussed in this article. The early historical facts sited here are well established in numerous sources. The sources for descriptions of twentieth-century developments are primarily the author's direct experience either as an executive in field, or as a journalist, who published numerous articles on technology for the blind, particularly in the eighties. A few of the exact dates are drawn from recollections posted on the Internet by Joseph E. Sullivan, the current president of Duxbury Systems.

Kimbrough, B. T. (2004). Dots and doubts: Technology and turmoil continue to flourish after braille's first century and a half. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 10(1).