Confession: I love manufacturing.
I work in the manufacturing industry, so when my travels combine both a factory and a museum – sign me up! Have you ever watched the television show, “How Things Are Made”? I am completely sucked in when I come across an episode – I’ve even recorded it (check my DVR if you don’t believe me.) I’ve worked in product development at various manufacturing companies for years and I still love watching how an idea gets turned into a physical product. Pair that with a museum that covers a niche topic like the history of Braille – something we probably all sort of learned in school, but really don’t know a lot about — and then showcases incredible individuals that take what everyone thinks of as a life sentence and completely flips it around is a definite must-see on my travel to-do list. So that’s how I found myself at the Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind located in Louisville, Kentucky.
On a beautiful Friday morning, I sat down with Michael Hudson, Director of the Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind. The organization (also referred to as APH) is a unique combination of both a printing house and a museum with a distinctive focus – preserving and presenting the remarkable contributions of people who are blind, and the history of printing materials for the blind or visually impaired community.
I’ll admit that my experience with history of Braille is sparse. I knew Louis Braille developed it, and it was made up of different dot patterns, but really nothing beyond that. As I talked to Michael, the whole fascinating story of “tactile” writing emerged.
The museum tour is like a 3-in-1 experience:
First, there is the museum itself, which starts with the history of tactile languages, the development of Braille and the “war of the dots,” in the 19th century and leads up to contemporary examples of people and technology impacting the blind or visually impaired community today.
Second, is the factory tour of the printing house itself – this is where you’ll see Braille books being printed, tactile graphics being made, and even the original mechanical machines (like the “old Pearl”) that are still used for specialized tasks today.
Third, is a little side trip into the educational materials the APH has created to improve the lives of blind or visually impaired children. It’s amazing the creativity and dedication of this organization as they continue to develop new products to help kids in the classroom.
Museum Tour Highlights:
The museum is broken up into two galleries: the 1883 Gallery, which focuses on the history of the APH and its contributions over the years; and the Callahan Gallery, which focuses on the history and education of blind people. If you can’t visit the museum in person, you check out a virtual tour on their website.
Temple Entrance – as you enter the museum, there is a large covered gateway with ancient tactile languages. I never thought about how ancient languages were designed to communicate both by touch and visually – carved into stone or tablets – and that these languages could be read by the eyes or by the fingers.
Fire Doors – look closely behind the exhibits as you enter the 1883 Gallery and you’ll see huge fire doors – another nod to the original 1883 factory building. The doors have a cable attached with a weight at the end and a little metal strip that melts at 200°F. If there was a fire in the factory, the metal strip would melt and the large metal door slides across shutting off that part of the factory. I love seeing the old bones of a building providing hidden touches of history.
Valentin Haüy – this is the man that really started it all by creating the first school for the blind and visually impaired in Paris, France. Michael tells an incredible story of what some blind people had to do to earn a living, which stirred Haüy into deciding there had to be another option which provided opportunities and kept a person’s dignity.
Francois Lesueur – Haüy’s first student. One of his jobs was to pick up Haüy’s mail every day. Haüy had a side job as a translator for the King of France and would occasionally receive embossed invitations from the King. Lesueur could “read” the embossing on the invitations, which gave Haüy the idea to develop “raised letter” books for the blind.
War of the Dots – many systems were developed in the early 19th century; even different countries had different systems. Most initially started with just raising the letters of the existing alphabet, but the curves in writing weren’t always clear. So then different typefaces were developed to make it easier to read the raised letters with your fingers.
Moon Type – an example of one of several different “arbitrary codes” that were developed. It was kind of based on the alphabet, but used different symbols for the letters.
Louis Braille – born in 1809, Louis was the son of a harness maker and became blind due to an accident with his father’s tools. Amazingly, Louis happened to live in France and was sent to Haüy’s school for the blind in Paris. How was the Braille system developed? It’s a fascinating story of a French soldier, a code called night writing, and a young boy with the smarts to simplify and build a new system that revolutionized communication for the blind.
Slate & Stylus – at this time, a blind person could read printed books but had no way to write notes themselves. Another technological leap forward was the slate and stylus. A rectangular tablet with a perforated bar that slid across the page allowed a person using a stylus – like a punch or an awl – to finally write Braille on-the-go. Consider it kind of the first portable, personal tool for writing Braille.
Hall Braille Writer & Perkins Braille Writer – the Hall Braille writer was a mechanical device invented by an American named Frank Hall 70 years after the slate and stylus was invented. Hall was a superintendent for the Illinois School for the Blind and developed the Hall Braille writer in 1892 in conjunction with a local typewriter company in Chicago.
The Perkins Braille Writer is really the penultimate modern Braille writer. Solid, dependable, reliable — the company still makes these today. And you get to try one of these machines in the museum. I wrote my name – totally cool! (If you visit with kids, then check this exhibit out.)
The museum has over 40 different mechanical Braille writers in their collection, but the Hall and Perkins are the iconic representatives of this technology.
30” Globe – how do you represent the world to someone who can’t see it? Globes with raised mountains and recessed rivers can let a child explore the world with their fingertips. Originally wooden maps were hand carved, which was labor intensive and more expensive to produce.
Stevie Wonder’s Piano – a stage, baby grand piano, this was the piano Stevie Wonder used while attending the Michigan School for the Blind. I had no idea that Stevie Wonder had his first hit song at the age of 12 and was touring the country, which posed a problem for the Detroit Board of Education. Being blind posed an additional challenge. So how could Stevie keep touring and keep up with his studies? Listen to the episode to find the ingenious solution that really allowed Stevie Wonder to develop into the superstar of today.
1959 World Book Encyclopedia – the picture won’t do this justice, but this is a staggering display of the largest Braille project ever done. Braille takes up more space than the same standard printed book – and this exhibit shows that. It also shows the dedication of the APH staff to make sure that information was available to everyone. Now, of course, all that information can be found on the cell phones in our pocket. It’s amazing the technology that has developed over the last several decades. Where will we go in the future?
Factory Tour Highlights:
Tactile Graphics – I never thought about how blind would be able to “see” a graphic image. Well, they’ve figured it out at APH – layers and layers and layers of a specialized ink printed on top of each other causes the ink to build up on the paper creating raised images. How was this discovered? Experimentation. Another reason why manufacturing companies need to give their employees the time and freedom to play with new ideas.
Proofreading – team of two people. A Braille reader that reads out loud every word, paragraph and punctuation mark. The other person is a copy reader. As the Braille reader reads the Braille text out loud, the copy reader follows along in the printed text to make sure everything matches. Attention to accuracy is key – if there is a typographical error in the print version, then APH will reproduce it in the Braille version.
Stereograph – how Braille translations were originally created – manually, by hand – before the current digital process. Someone sat at this machine, read the printed text, and then literally transcribed the text one Braille character at a time. It’s sort of like play chords on a piano – the keys to form each Braille letter are pushed down at the same time.
Tip – a single Braille character is made up of a “cell” which is a combination of 6 dots – 3 high and 2 wide. Corresponding to the letters in the standard English alphabet, it even includes ways to add punctuation and capitalization.
Correcting Tongs – what if someone made a mistake on the stereograph machine? Then you had to use a set of correcting tongs to punch in the missing dot or flatten out a wrong dot.
Pearl – one of Michael’s favorite machines, the Pearl sort of looks and operates like a sewing machine. Used for making tactile graphics plates, the Pearl is still great at producing volume prints of tactile graphics.
“Little Pearl Companion” – a very specialized machine for making map symbols. Bought in July 1906, the Little Pearl still works today. How many other machines from the turn of the century are working today? I love seeing old machinery still functioning and still valued today.
Nemeth Code – how does Braille work for mathematics? Well, that’s where Abraham Nemeth comes into the picture. Hear his full story in the episode, but let’s just say he was a kid that loved math, but was told he couldn’t pursue that dream because he was blind. Go into sociology they said, so he did. And then couldn’t get a job. Get an advanced sociology degree they said. So he did, and couldn’t get a job. Finally, he said, “I can either be an unemployed sociologist or an unemployed mathematician,” so he chose the mathematician route and adapted the existing Braille code for mathematics. The beauty of his system is that it uses the existing Braille characters, but assigned them new mathematical meanings. So a kid didn’t have to learn a new system, but just know the mathematical alternative for the same character. Genius.
Heidelberg Original Cylinder Press – a recurring theme of the APH is taking an existing technology and re-purposing it to fit the needs of printing Braille. The three Heidelberg presses are classic examples of that ingenuity. Originally designed for traditional printing, the APH modified them so they could use embossing plates to print Braille instead.
Collator – this looks like a basic machine, but its unique skill is lifting, sorting, and collating pages without crushing the Braille text. Think about that. What kind of precision does it take to have mechanical “fingers” pick up and sort sensitive pages of Braille? Listen to the episode to find out how it used to be done and why this basic-looking machine was such a revolution for the APH.
This whole section of education products amazed me. As a sighted person, I take for granted being able to see everything going on in a typical classroom. Close your eyes and imagine a classroom. How would you learn if you couldn’t see the board, or a presentation, or a 3D model? Luckily, the APH thinks about that every day. Do not skip this part of the museum tour because it really makes you think how the sighted world is translated for the blind and visually impaired.
Draftsman – it kind of reminded me of an Etch-A-Sketch, but this simple tool is helping teachers create quick tactile graphics in the classroom on the fly. Imagine the teacher drawing a symbol on the board – how would a blind student “see” it? This tool allows the student the same access to information in real-time as everyone else in the classroom.
Lots of Dots – designed to teach kids the alphabet and punctuation. How do you capitalize in Braille? Find out by listening to the episode. (By the way, I totally want a Lots of Dots for myself!)
Periodic Table – flashing back to my Chemistry days, the periodic table is a classic tool but is also a totally visual tool. How would you translate this visual table into a tactile form? That’s what the APH thinks about every day.
(Oh, and if you really want to nerd out, there is a fascinating book about the Periodic Table called The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean. In fact, all his books are excellent!)
Human Anatomy Kit – 3D skeleton models have been available, but how do you connect the words with the specific bones? This tool does that and, to quote Michael, includes a “cool” quiz kit (seriously, I had to call Michael out on that – what kid thinks quizzes are cool?)
Orbit 20 – the latest product developed for both kids and adults, the “refreshable” Braille display and note taker is truly a remarkable piece of technology. Developing a product durable enough and fast enough to translate printed text into Braille and back into printed text allows for near real-time translation. Demand has been so great that it’s on backorder. (Side note – as a manufacturer you always want to have products available for the people that want them, but you also know you have a good product that really serves your customers when demand exceeds supply.)
I think one of the most important things we can do as human beings is to try and see the world through someone else’s eyes. What does the world look like to them? What experiences shaped them? How do they see things differently – and how do they see things the same as me? The Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind is a great example of that philosophy. As a sighted person, I can never fully understand what it’s like to be blind, but it gave me a small glimpse into the struggles facing the blind and visually impaired community and the impressive strides that have been made to overcome everyday obstacles the sighted take for granted.
The historical and interactive nature of the museum along with the impact the printing house has on kids today is a unique combination and is well worth a visit. If you’re a museum nerd like me, then you have got to add this museum to your “must-see” list and tell them, “I heard about you on the Made in Museums podcast.”
If you love to document your travels to off-the-beaten-path places, then show me where you’re heading or where you’ve been by sharing your stories with me at Made in Museums on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you want to let me know about a curious museum that you’ve visited, and that I should cover on this show, contact me through social media or just send me an email.
Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind website
Visiting Hours and Admissions – since this information could change, please visit the museum’s webpage to find the most up-to-date information.
School & Group Tours – if you’re in the Louisville, Kentucky area, the museum can host group tours. Contact them for more details. Trust me – the kids will get a total kick out of visiting this museum and writing their name in Braille.
Virtual Tour – If you can’t visit the museum in person, you check out their virtual tours on their website.
Travel Guide – I’ve created a travel guide for this museum highlighting the “must-see” items in the collection and any other information I thought might be helpful when planning your visit to this incredible museum.
Kentucky School for the Blind – right next door to the museum, this organization has a long history and has made important contributions to the blind and visually impaired community. Visit their website and find ways you can support them, or search for a school in your area (schools everywhere need our support!).