Early Braille: The Slate and Stylus

Slate & stylus, Canadian Printing for the Blind Fonds, CSTM archives, Ottawa, ON, Canada

Slate & Stylus 

Pictured here are two objects commonly referred to as a slate and stylus. Although size, shape, material and feel can vary, this slate is made of two flat and rectangular pieces of opaque plastic that are hinged together, making it possible to slide a piece of paper between. One side of the slate is solid with a number of slight depressions, while the other side is marked by a series of holes or cells – four along the top and twenty-eight along the side. The stylus consists of a curved wooden handle to be held by the user, with a slim metal tip at the end. By holding the wooden handle, one can press down on the stylus through the slate and indent braille cells on heavy paper. 

The provenance of this object cannot be fully understood without first acknowledging its origins in the development of braille and its subsequent introduction to Canada. Louis Braille is famously credited with inventing a raised system of dots to be used for reading and writing by persons who were blind in 1820s post-Napoleonic France. This system, eventually named “braille” after its founder, joined several other forms of embossed or indented print at the time, including that which was developed by William Moon and others.[1]  The development of braille went hand in hand with the slate and stylus, a device adapted from an earlier version of a printing slate invented by Charles Barbiere. The slate and stylus made for convenient and consistent writing, and facilitated the adoption of braille across the Continent and beyond from the early nineteenth-century onward.

Braille would evolve over the next century and into the twentieth, as it became a truly global phenomenon. By 1905, braille was used throughout Europe. Although North American schools still offered instruction in embossed and other indented printing systems such as New York Point, braille was adopted by many.  As Ernst Hamm has written, Canadians had little to do with the development of braille as a system, but braille and its attendant technologies, like the slate and stylus, was nevertheless influential to the history of persons who were blind in Canada, particularly in the education system.[2] 

L’institut Nazareth of Montreal was the first institution of its kind to adopt braille as a system at its establishment in 1861. The Halifax School for the Blind in Nova Scotia began instructing students in embossed print when it first opened its doors in 1871, but soon switched to braille by 1878. The Ontario Institute for the Blind (OIB) in Brantford continued to teach New York Point for several years after other institutions had transitioned to braille. Even when the Montreal Association of the Blind, founded in 1908, declared itself in favour of braille in 1914, OIB still continued instructing students in New York Point.[3]

OIB began receiving pressure from its students, however, and particularly past graduates such as Edgar B.F. Robinson, a long-time activist who founded the Canadian Free Library for the Blind (CFLB) in 1906. One of the first institutions in Ontario to be founded and administered by individuals who were themselves blind, the CFLB was a significant advocate for those who were blind or partially sighted in Canada. By 1914, CFLB began purchasing several of its books in braille and proved to be substantial competition for the OIB. The then superintendent of the OIB, Herbert F. Gardner actively opposed the CFLB and its efforts, including its preference for braille. Gardner argued that the braille system was flawed if for no other reason than that it was invented by Louis Braille, whom Gardner viewed as less capable than sighted inventors and educators such as himself. After a Royal Commission in 1916 that investigated the OIB and its practices, the Institute was finally compelled to phase out New York Point and dismissed Gardner. W. B. Race, the man who replaced Gardner as superintendent of the OIB, slowly began switching the school to braille in 1917— a process that would not be complete until 1926. In contrast to his predecessor, Race freely worked alongside the CFLB in printing books for students.[4]  

The slate and stylus, as is pictured here, was instrumental to such a transition, providing students with a means to write and transcribe materials as needed in braille. As Leona Emberson from the CNIB will explain in another portion of this exhibit, the slate and stylus are as old as braille itself, but still used today, at least by some, as they are conveniently small in size and enable people to take notes when needed. This particular slate and stylus was made for the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky, a commonly used supplier for Canadian institutions. The objects were collected by Ernst P. Hamm for the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology in 1986 and are currently held within the Museum’s library.


[1] For more about the history of Louis Braille and the early development of braille as a writing system, please see Zina Weygand, The Blind in French Society from the Middle Ages to the Century of Louis Braille, trans. Emily-Jane Cohen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009).

[2] Ernst  P. Hamm, “Printing, Patronage and Paternalism: Technological Choice and the Introduction of Braille at the Ontario Institution for the Blind,” National Museum of Science and Technology (July 1987),  1.

[3] Hamm, 38-40.

[4] Hamm, 41-48; Correspondence with Daniel Maggiacomo, Principal of the W. Ross MacDonald School (once the Ontario Institute for the Blind), 03 February 2016.

Early Braille: The Slate and Stylus