Blind, Braille and Embossing Technologies

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History of the Braille Book: the tactile fetish that built the culture of the blind

Updated the 05/03/2021 18:00 

The passion for the infamous smell of paper is a corollary to the conversations of those who want to avoid the sensory impoverishment caused by the electronic word. And so, in that eternal dual game that characterizes dialogues, we read of passionate love for the paper book, of heated stances in favor of its shape, its color, its smell.

Human beings have always felt the need to communicate with other individuals of their species. After communicating through spoken language, man's attention turned to the written word, in order to be able to transfer and hand down information and knowledge to other individuals in an indirect way. The spoken and written language has always had a central role; it has not only been the main vehicle of communication, but it has been and is also the propeller of the evolution of human beings. Therefore the word has been and is the instrument of interaction between people in order to convey a message.

In the West the process of massification of the word began in 1455, when the German Johannes Gutenberg printed 180 copies of the first book (The Bible) using a machine of his own construction. In more than five hundred years of book dissemination, this medium has made the printed word accessible to all human beings, spreading and distributing information and knowledge. Creator of the social cohesion of a rapidly expanding world, it has sociologically handed down beliefs, traditions, superstitions, religious rituals, and culture.

The smell of books has also been analyzed chemically; it seems to be due to the degradation of paper, containing cellulose, and the consequent release of organic substances. But sensorially a book is more than its smell, because it involves at least two other senses: sight and touch. In addition, a book is potentially a source of emotion because of the words it carries within its pages. The feelings of the printed words are imprinted in the mind of the reader who, as if in a process of unconscious transference, reifies the word in the book, in the concrete medium that he holds in his hands; a book that anchors in the mind of the reader the emotions transmitted by the printed words also through smell and sight.

For the first Braille book, we have to go back 400 years in history. In fact, it wasn't until 1827 that the word saw the light of day in another form: dots. The glyphs of movable type printing for reading by blind people are not useful; we are just beginning to understand that another system is needed. To see the punches of a Braille printer in action we still have to go forward in time another 150 years. A few years earlier, the Austrian Alois Senefelder invents a new printing technique that he calls "chemical printing on stone": lithographic printing is born. After a few years, lithography is well established almost all over Europe; already in 1831 there are about sixty establishments, while France, the same country in which in those years Louis Braille is struggling to get his system understood, mobilizes the government to support its development.

The medium remains the book, which has since become stronger than stone. For Braille, what changes is the reading and writing system. We cannot speak of Braille printing because it does not yet exist, although there are attempts to emboss characters on wet paper. True Braille printing will begin to appear on the scene in the twentieth century, borrowing the technique perhaps from the zinc plates used in lithography instead of stone plates.

Braille is revolutionary, it is different, as if to further emphasize the diversity of the blind within society. The blind with the Braille book is as if they were born for the first time, at least with the written word. Before Braille, the only system they had to communicate was the spoken word. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the new Braille script has been offered experimentally to blind children attending institutions; the advantages it brings far outweigh the disadvantages. A revolution comparable to that of Braille will take place with the advent of information technology, in the nineties of the twentieth century. In 1878, the International Congress in Paris declared Braille the official code for writing and reading for the blind in all states.

As newborn as the system was, Braille in the history of blind people fills a need, an enormous cultural black hole that had never before been approached. From being outcasts of society, with Braille, blind people have the tool to emerge from the social limbo to which Judeo-Christian culture has relegated them. It is useful to understand that it is thanks to Braille that today's blind people enjoy culture, work and technology. Braille has directly and indirectly shaped and conditioned the evolution and emancipation of all blind people in the world. It is a consequence of Braille that today people with visual impairments have organizations that defend their interests, first founded in the early 1900s. While the blind used to live on the margins, after Braille, the history of the blind is a continuous succession of cultural, legal and technological achievements.

The twentieth century saw Braille books become increasingly popular. There are three main modes of distribution: lending, studying, and selling. The blind become blind, culture expands and sensitivity grows. The feeling of disgust towards disability diminished, until it almost completely disappeared... almost; a feeling that was first replaced by Christian benevolence at the end of the 19th century, when more or less illustrious benefactors subsidized the first institutes for young blind people, then by a policy of egalitarian humanity whereby it was gradually recognized that characteristics deeply rooted in the person did not constitute a legitimate basis for the systematic legal subordination of the person: we began to discuss rights. Even today there is a stigma and prejudice associated with the classification of the visually impaired person; the difference between yesterday and today is in the awareness that the characteristics of the person with a disability often have no relation to his or her ability to act or participate in society.

The Braille book is part of this gradual process of awareness and inclusion because it was the tool that brought culture and speech among people with visual disabilities. Therefore, to close the circle and return to the initial theme, Braille natives, that is, all people with congenital or acquired visual impairments before the massive advent of information technology, feel and touch in the Braille book the fetish of their own emancipation, carried by a feeling equal to that of sighted people who feel emotions for the smell and shape of a common printed book. The Braille book projects outside of it the punched words it contains, information and culture with which the blind have an even more direct tactile relationship than sight, more intimate and sensual because the word is expressed through the sense par excellence when one wants to come into contact with something or someone: touch. The sense of smell is only minimally involved, because it is not stimulated by inks that react chemically with the cellulose of the paper, since Braille does not require such solutions; touch comes into play, since Braille can be touched, palpated, caressed, run through with the fingers, transmitting emotions and culture through an intimate tactile experience that makes the reader, the book and the word a unicum.

It is likely that the book in the future will be replaced by a more usable medium. Already, there are more and more electronic devices called Ebook readers or tablets that are shaped like a book, but contain an amount of books comparable to an entire library. Digital natives are the people who can now fully enjoy this new medium of containing the word. Certainly an aseptic word, less involving for the senses, a word no longer printed, but projected on a digital screen. A similar future awaits Braille. Today, Braille is also expressed through electronics and information technology, although the transition from one medium to another will only be fully realized when the world cultural scene will have almost only digital native readers. In addition, the digital world has yet to introduce a technology that, for Braille, will become the watershed between the paper-electronic Braille of the past and the digital Braille of the future, that is, haptic screens that can offer Braille a new and fabulous three-dimensional medium in which to realize itself and become intimately embedded in the reader, just like traditional Braille on paper. But perhaps science in the future will be able to give the blind other wonders: sight.