Blind, Braille and Embossing Technologies

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History of the evolution of the book and the emancipation of the blind

Updated the 08/23/2021 08:00 

Since the use in the West in 1455 of Gutenberg's movable type printing, Google has estimated that as of 2010 approximately 130 million different books have been printed. For more than four centuries, the only true mass medium was the "printed word."

The writing systems in the history of humankind, at least of the civilizations we know, are many. Leaving a written memory has always been felt as a need to pass on knowledge to posterity. From the Sumerian cuneiform system of 4000 B.C. to the Egyptian papyrus of 2400 B.C., to the parchment made from animal skins dating back to 200 B.C., to the Roman codices where Christians transcribed prayers and sacred texts. Although the invention of paper dates back to 105 AD in China, the first real printed book is from 800 AD. (in China), where the first printing process using wooden blocks was invented. Chinese art meanwhile evolved into an increasingly refined printing process. The German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg perfected this system and brought it to Europe. The first book printed with the new machine is the "Gutenberg Bible", which is published on February 23, 1455 with a print run of 180 copies.

After this excursus in the history of the book, with reference to blind people, the question that arises is: when did blind people begin to independently enjoy the "printed word"?

Braille was certainly the watershed between the before and after: the emancipation of blind people began there. Before Braille, blind people, those in the upper classes, aristocratic or wealthy, could do nothing but rely on the word read or spoken by others. Oral tradition was the basis of the culture of the very few blind people who could afford it. The other "orbs" were destined to a meager life of sacrifice and begging. The most famous blind beggar in the history of literature is Homer. In Ancient Greece blindness was considered a necessary condition to receive supernatural gifts from the gods. After the Protestant Reformation of 1517 AD, the Greek concept of the blind is reversed, so that in the literature of the time men without sight are the victim of jokes or even burned at the stake.

We have to reach the nineteenth century to witness a true cultural revolution of the blind. In fact, there is no doubt that Braille caused a social and moral revolution among blind people all over the world. Before Louis Braille, books were an unattainable horizon for the blind, except through the mediation of the eyes and voice of others or the goodwill of some benefactor who devised bizarre solutions for the few. The spread of Braille was a process that affected almost the entire nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The first Braille book was made in 1827, but the system slowly began to spread in the second half of the nineteenth century, after Louis Braille's death in 1852. Braille books are mostly recopied by hand and used within institutions where young blind students are housed. Culture for blind people remained confined and selected within these institutions. In those same years, for the aristocrats or the wealthier classes, those who lose their sight still make use of read alouds by people paid for the purpose. It is only in the twentieth century that the first institutions for the blind began to be founded, which lend Braille books from their libraries. These special libraries are of use to all blind people able to read Braille, few in comparison to all the others who, despite the times, still live on handouts and humility. However, for the diffusion of culture, the difficulties are obvious, since these institutions are not as widely distributed throughout the territory as ordinary libraries. Moreover, Braille books remain precious objects to be lent and returned.

The first magnetophone is patented in 1934. It uses magnetic tapes to record and play back sound. It is initially used to record concerts and political events. Tape recording became widespread among the blind in the 1960s, when Philips introduced the cassette tape and the first Portable recorder in 1963. In Italy, a few years earlier, "Talking books" began to be introduced, first produced on reel-to-reel and then on cassette, until the brief transition from CDs around the year 2000 to MP3s in recent years. It is almost a return to pre-Braille reading, with the difference that Braille and spoken books now coexist in the book choices of blind people. Music cassette recorders allow the post-World War II blind more options in study. Blind students, first in institutions and then in schools, make extensive use of them to record lectures and textbooks.

Although the first voice synthesis was produced in 1968, we have to wait until the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s to hear the first artificial voices speaking from the desks of blind people. Starting in the 1990s, the use of computers and voice synthesis, an artificial voice that reads everything shown on the screen, began to spread among the blind. From there, the connection between screen reading and book reading is made almost immediately, also thanks to another technology that spreads in the same years, namely optical character recognition, which allows through a Scanner to capture the paper text of common printed books and transfer it into digital. In these years, the first services for blind people were born to distribute digital books, forerunners of today's eBooks. They are also the same blind people who share with each other, sometimes through floppy disks others through modem transfers, digital files of books they have acquired. In a certain sense, blind people are the forerunners once again - first with audiobooks, then with eBooks - of the evolution of the paper book into a digital book or an audio book, alternative forms of books that today coexist on an equal footing in the world publishing scene.

The digital book, and information technology in general, allows Braille to raise its dots on a new electronic tool: the Braille display. Even though Braille displays were born almost at the same time as the first home computers, due to their high cost, these devices became widespread in Italy in 1992, when they were included in the tariff nomenclature of the national health service. On the one hand, those accustomed to reading large Braille volumes lose the spatiality they find with paper books; on the other hand, they gain the possibility of having Braille that can be reproduced in real time and indefinitely. Not only that, but Portable Braille displays are beginning to appear that, in addition to making Braille available everywhere, allow for note-taking, giving the blind the freedom, beyond a Braille Tablet, to read and write independently even when away from home.

Digital has also helped expand the availability of paper Braille books. Thanks to Braille printing devices for home and professional use, Braille on paper has become very easily reproducible in multiple copies. Although the first Braille printers saw the light of day, on an experimental basis, in the late 1960s, Braille printers becoming available to home users have been on the market since the 1990s. Braille printers for industrial use accelerate their speed and improve their quality, while the computer world develops Software to better exploit their features. Books in digital format thus become infinitely reproducible in Braille. The limited availability of Braille books for lending is brought down.

Today, blind people can choose whether to read a Braille book on paper, Braille on a display, by voice using speech synthesis, or by voice using audio books read by professionals. All reading modalities, starting with Braille two hundred years ago, are available to all blind people, for whom the standard of living and quality of life have greatly improved. In the future there will surely be more such revolutions. Perhaps the blind will be able to read and see words projected directly into their minds, perhaps science will make it possible for the blind to see again, perhaps knowledge will be grafted directly into the memory of human beings. The only constant that will hardly change its purpose will be the "word" that, handed down by voice, written in cuneiform characters, in hieroglyphics, on parchment, on paper in Chinese characters, in digital through a screen, in Braille through a display... will always be the only bearer for all human beings of humanity and knowledge.