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A History of Publishing for People Who Are Blind

A while back I was watching an episode of Little House on the Prairie. It was the one where Mary, having recently gone blind, was sent to a school for the blind. There were several scenes where Adam was teaching Mary how to read braille. Before them they had a bound book printed in braille. While it fascinated me that a person would be able to read "bumps," what really intrigued me was how they were "printed" -- what process was used to put the "bumps" on the page? I set out to find the answer. The first thing I discovered was that in history there were many formats of publishing for blind people. As a group, all formats of publishing for blind people are referred to as "tactile" printing -- able to read by touching the raised letters of the alphabet or other arbitrary systems which have been embossed on sheets of paper.

The first system involved embossing letters of the Roman alphabet arranged to form words and sentences on sheets of paper. The first book embossed for blind people was produced in 1786.

In order to produce printing using this system, a major change had to be made in the type that was being used for traditional printing. While each letter on the type block was raised enough to allow a deep enough embossing instead of transfer of ink, there was a major obstacle to overcome. In traditional type blocks, the letters were formed and mounted on backwards. In order to do letter embossed printing, all type had to be re-cast so that the letters were forwards. The same type blocks could not be used to produce both kinds of printing.

Works utilizing the embossed letters format presented two other major disadvantages. In order for people to be able to feel the actual shape of each letter, the size of the letters had to be relatively large -- much larger than printed words for the sighted. To compound the problem, in embossed letter printing, only one side of each page could be used. Often the makers of these books pasted the embossed pages together backtrack.

Having to use letters several times larger than those used for the sighted and only being able to use one side of each page for text, of course, made the number of pages needed for the same information much greater -- a book for the sighted may have been a few hundred pages while the same work produced in tactile printing made the work a few thousand pages long. These factors made the books bulky to handle and took up a vast amount of storage space.

With only minor changes, the same printing press could be used to produce either raised letter or the traditional ink transfer format printing. In raised letter printing, the platen, instead of having a hard metal or wood surface, contained a layer of a soft, rubber like material. This way, when the platen was clamped down on the type, the softer surface allowed the shapes of the lead type to emboss the paper.

As the process was refined and the quality of rubber improved, raised letter printing became more common-place. Other improvements in printing presses over the years, such as steam operated and cylinder presses, and the development and improvement of stereotype plates, speeded up the process and the ability to produce larger quantities in a shorter period of time.

The New England Institution for the Education of the Blind (Boston), under the direction of Samuel Gridley Howe, obtained their first printing press in 1835. From this press they began publishing several works in the tactile (raised letter) format. By 1842, they had produced the New Testament, the complete text of the Bible, a Universal History, as well as geography, grammar, and spelling books.

The paper used to print on was very heavy and tough. The Bible consisted of 8 volumes and could be purchased for $20. At Howe's death in 1872, his widow, Julia Ward Howe, established a fund for printing books for the blind.

The American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky, was chartered in 1858. They purchased their first printing press in 1863 and in 1867 their first book in the raised letter format was produced. It was "A Book of Fables and Stories for Children."

Louis Braille, who was born in France on January 4, 1809, became blind at the age of three and entered a school for the blind in Paris when he was ten. Even though raised letter printing had been around for several decades, the number of works printed in that format were extremely few.

In Louis Braille's time the most accessible reading material for the blind was works with the letters hand carved on wood planks, cut in cardboard, or cast in lead to form abbreviated versions of books or other short works. Needless to say, works produced on sheets of wood or lead rather than paper was a cumbersome and slow process -- both to produce and to read.

In the 1820's the French army used a 12 dot system developed by Charles Barbier for nighttime battlefield communications but the system was not intended to be used by the blind. In Barbier's system, small holes were punched in cardboard and this became a means of reading communications in the dark without having to use a light to see it -- thus avoiding the possibility of the enemy seeing the light and giving away their location. Braille adapted the 12 dot system into a 6 dot system of his own in 1824; he was only 15 years old at the time!

This system utilized 6 embossed dots in a variety of patterns to form a code with 63 possible combinations. Each combination represents a specific letter of the alphabet, number, or punctuation mark. In addition, in the English Braille System, there are 189 contractions and short form words. Since braille was developed by a Frenchman, the French language was used to set up the system. The French language does not contain the letter "W", thus in order to bring it to English language based countries, a "W" had to be adapted.

Louis Braille, who had become a teacher at the School for Blind Youth in Paris in 1826, did not publish his system until 1829. The students readily accepted his system but other teachers were reluctant to use it.

Louis Braille died in 1852 and it wasn't until two years later that his school formally adopted his system. At its inception, braille was used primarily as a means for blind persons to communicate with each other in a written language. For the most part, it remained that way for the next several decades.

Braille was not the only dot pattern (point) format developed for the blind to read and communicate in writing. The most popular other system was called "New York Point." For several decades, some schools for the blind in America taught New York Point exclusively and others taught braille. In 1860, the Missouri School for the Blind was the first institution outside of Paris to officially adopt braille as its official form of written communication.

To print works using Louis Braille's system or the New York Point system required a substantial change in how the printing was done. The type blocks had to be completely revised. To print braille or New York Point format, instead of a letter from the alphabet being on the type block, the corresponding dot pattern for the letter was cast on the head of the block -- small, identical in diameter, raised cylinders of lead. From there the manner of typesetting for both ink transfer and point systems for the blind were identical. That is, letter by letter, the type was inserted by hand onto a rack to spell out the words, paragraphs and text to form the complete page. A completed page was called a "chase."

Initially, to publish a work in the point system format, as with other kinds of printing, the chase was used for the printing plate. As with tactile printing, the platen above the chase was replaced with a soft rubber like material to allow the embossing of the dots on the paper from the raised dots on the chase.

Since the dots were so much smaller than ordinary type, uniform embossing became difficult to produce a readable work. Mostly for this reason, works published in braille or New York Point were relatively scarce. Although some works were printed in the point system format in the middle 1860's, it wasn't until the turn of the century that works printed in braille or New York Point became more common-place and mass-produced. The American Printing House for the Blind began embossing books in New York Point in 1874 and published their first book in braille in 1893.

As cylinder presses came into being and the improvement of the quality of stereotype plates improved, a new method of printing in braille or New York Point was developed. With this process, two stereotype plates are made for each page -- referred to as one male and one female plate. In the male plate, each individual dot is raised much like the end result of the finished page printed in braille. In the female plate, at the exact corresponding location, the dot is slightly smaller in diameter and fits inside the dot on the other plate. When a sheet of paper is sandwiched between the two plates and clamped together, the result is dots of uniform size and height which results in a vast improvement of quality in readability.

In addition to using two plates, a special paper was used. This paper is dampened before it is printed on so that it will stretch slightly without breaking during the printing process. After drying, the paper shrinks to form a hard and firm dot.

In 1893, Frank Hall's invention of the stereotype maker revolutionized tactile printing. His invention mechanized the method of hammering the dots into the metal and eliminated the need for making molds and casting the stereotype plates. His invention all but eliminated the need for special point type blocks or the hand hammering of the dots into the plates.

With both raised letter and early point system publishing, only one side of each page had the raised letters or dots. Some publishers glued the two previously embossed sheets of paper together to form a front and back side of the page. This, of course, made any work have double the number of pages and weigh much more. The early 1900's in America saw an improvement in the method used to produce works in the point system. Technology had been improved enough so that both sides of the same sheet of paper could be embossed with the dots at the same time.

The Matilda Ziegler Magazine was the first publication in America to use a rotary press to produce a work in braille utilizing both sides of the pages. This was in 1912. New York Point and Braille were the only dot based systems for several generations. The two systems competed against each other. Some schools formally adopted and taught New York Point and others used braille exclusively. It wasn't until 1909 that the American Printing House for the Blind began printing in American Braille. Even as braille gained acceptance, it went through several revisions before a final version was formalized. The universal Braille code for the English speaking world was adopted in 1932 at a conference in London. This system is known as Standard English Braille, Grade 2 and is still used today.

Prior to the advent of modern computers, there were two principal methods of producing printing plates to publish in braille. A skilled stereotypist inserted a sheet of zinc or iron into the carriage of the machine that had a series of six keys, corresponding to the six dots of each braille cell as well as a space bar. The keys were either activated by an electrically powered mechanical clutch or electronically directed solenoid. The operator was highly skilled in writing and reading braille. The stereotypist inserted a folded sheet and, as they typed, the machine embossed each dot in the cell directly on what would become both the male and female printing plates. When the first side was completed, the operator removed the sheet from the carriage, turned it over and re-inserted it into the carriage. However, the sheets registered automatically slightly to one side and downward. This permitted the making of an interpoint plate to be accomplished in a much shorter time.

The American Printing House for the Blind began a joint research project with IBM in 1957 to explore using a computer to translate print into braille and drive a plate embossing device (PED). By 1964 the computer system was fully operational. In the early days, an operator, using a standard keyboard, typed the text onto computer key-punch cards. These cards were converted to a tape and then fed into a computer which translated the print into braille on a second set of cards. These cards drove the automatic stereograph which produced the embossing plates. A major advantage was that key-punch operators did not have to know braille at all -- the computer did the translating automatically.

Today, key-punch cards are no longer used. Rather, the translated braille file is output to an electronically driven embossing machine that makes the actual braille printing plates.

Braille books are printed on hand fed presses which have been adapted for that purpose. Braille magazines are printed on automated presses using a special heavy paper but printed dry. Today, approximately 50 million pages are printed annually in braille. The American Printing House for the Blind prints and distributes Weekly Reader*, and Reader's Digest*. (*Registered trademarks of the Reader's Digest Association, Inc. and the Weekly Reader.) In addition, the American Printing House for the Blind has been awarded contracts by the IRS for producing their materials in braille and by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped for braille books and periodicals.

Throughout history, the problem with works being published in braille was the limited funding. It was impossible and impractical to publish everything that was ever printed for the sighted in braille. Today, with improvements in computers, software, and printers, the blind now have access to virtually everything ever published for the sighted.

The development of the laser printer in the mid-1980's opened up a new world for would-be-publishers. As a result, a publication could be produced at a much lower cost than any other previous technology. So it is today with publishing in braille, What brought this about is the development of special software and printers to publish works in braille.

The first stage is the use of a special software and an ordinary scanner. From this, pages from printed books for the sighted can be scanned and the software converts them to text files and then translates the file into braille ready for output. The software will translate text files in about 20 languages, including English, Spanish, German, French and Russian and make them ready for output in braille. Text can also be typed directly into a word processing program and then run through the software to prepare it for output into braille. The cost of the software is $500.

Text embossing printers (also called "TED") are now on the market that output files in pages embossed in braille. Enabling Technologies makes braille printers ranging from smaller, personal embossers to larger, high speed units. The cost of a mid line model averages about $3000.

Ironically, as a result of conducting the research to write this article, I learned that the "Little House on the Prairie" episode contained some factual errors.

In several scenes, it showed Adam teaching Mary to read braille from a book much the same size and binding as used in traditional books for the sighted -- 6 x 9 inches and about 2 inches thick. Books published for people who are blind are too bulky to permit the traditional binding used in books for the sighted. In the 1870's, books published in braille were very large. Many were 12 x 14 inches and about 6 inches thick -- not anywhere near the size and thickness as the one used in that episode.