How a Braille Software Company Was Born

By Anne Ronco

It was July 4, 1975, and I was doing what most kids do: eating hamburgers and swimming in a friend’s pool. In another room, Bob Gildea, Anne Simpson, and my father, Joe Sullivan were signing papers that would establish a new braille software company called Duxbury Systems.

My father had become infatuated with braille while working with Bob Gildea on a project at MITRE. He wanted to make braille easier to produce and he felt he could succeed.

Early news story photos of Duxbury Systems

Top: Reid Gerhart and Joe Sullivan examine a proof printout. Bottom: Vito Proscia, MIT, and Robert Gildea check the product of the Braille embosser

I think back to the enormous risk he took. With six children, he left a good-paying job to pursue an idea that had never been attempted. The start was rocky. Without a steady source of income, our family had to watch every penny. Even though a braille system cost tens of thousands of dollars back then, only one or two would be sold each year. I remember each customer had our home phone number, in case of problems. One Thanksgiving my father was on the phone for three hours with an overseas customer who was unaware that it was an American holiday. And dad traveled often, which left mom alone with six kids.

But my folks were resourceful. Right after the company was founded, we packed up a trailer and all of us headed off to the NFB and ACB conferences.

We camped in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, and finally reached St. Tammany, Louisiana, outside of New Orleans where the first conference was held. 1970's camping pictureThe drinking water smelled of sulphur, it was 104 degrees and HUMID, tiny mosquitoes could fly right through the screen, and my brother, Peter, got a horrible case of poison sumac. Despite it all, we still remember those trips fondly.

As we got older, my siblings and I started to get interested in learning the business. I entered addresses into a database and learned how to generate a mass mailing. I think I was the only kid in high school who could use a word processor. Peter taught himself programming. Some of it was less useful. When we got our first talking terminal, Peter and I spent hours trying to trick it to say naughty words.

But the most important thing was that my father did succeed. Despite the odds, the company is thriving 40 years later. With the help of many others, the Duxbury Braille Translator now produces braille in more than 130 languages.

That isn’t the only success. My father has passed on his love of braille to us, his family, and to many thousands of others around the world. Nice going, Dad.

 

In loving memory of

Robert (Bob) Gildea

1924-2015

 

A Braille Code Etched In Barley

At the border line of a new year, I sit transfixed in front of my computer by what I am seeing onscreen: carved into an enormous green field of barley,crop circle with braille code inside spanning an entire acre, is a beautiful geometric pattern, circular in circumference, with squares and a rectangle in the middle with… with… is that braille? The dots are square but unmistakably etched in a six-dot pattern we recognize as “the code.”

An elaborate crop circle mysteriously appeared overnight in the tiny town of Chualar, California. A photographer who happened to be flying over the field in a helicopter captured the giant-scale work of art, which went viral overnight. That alone was fortuitous. You can’t see a crop circle pattern from the ground; all you can see are bent swaths of grain—at a 90-degree angle from the root node and woven together flat—leading in one direction or another. If you’ve never seen a crop circle, imagine a full page of raised braille dots, some of which are only half as tall, thus forming a finely detailed pattern like an engraving.

Debra Falanga, a certified braille transcriber from New Jersey, told CNN, “The braille was so accurately portrayed… it’s not off in any way, shape, or form. It looks like a ticker tape of the number 192, 192, 192.” Even the number sign was properly displayed.

The next day the farmer ordered the field to be plowed.

I took it hard and to heart. Why does “the unknown” elicit destruction rather than a playful curiosity? Myself, I can’t fathom how human elves could make such an intricate pattern, overnight and without detection. But, aliens? What I do know, and lament, is the fact that our time of wonder was cut short.  A crop circle inscribed in braille appeared within a week of Louis Braille’s actual birthday on January 4th. Who can deny the beauty of that?

Today, a company that makes a mobile processor with 192 graphics cores, NVIDIA, took credit for the circle.

They wanted to promote the fact that their processor can do things no other technology – on this planet – can do. Frankly, I preferred the braille-literate aliens.

Happy New Year!

Bringing Louis Braille’s Story to Light

It was April in Paris. Mike Mellor and I were on a junket—a mission, really—to secure permission to translate and publish the extant letters of Louis Braille. Mike had discovered them sitting in an archival box at the school in Paris, where Louis had been a student and later a teacher. We had both worked in the field for decades and neither of us had heard of these letters! To imagine that we could read Louis’s own words, hear his voice, send his thoughts out into the world…

Photo of Braille family home in Coupvray.

Braille family home in Coupvray

We caught a train to Coupvray, Louis’s birthplace, to visit the Braille family home, now a museum. I allowed myself no expectations that we could break through the resistance that Mike had weathered during a half-dozen earlier trips. Margaret Calvarin, the gracious, very-French curator of the museum gave us a thorough tour of the house—from the attic to the wine cellar. The Braille family owned a vineyard and had bottled their own wine for generations. Just as we were finishing the tour, I heard a clanking sound and turned around to see Madame Calvarin leaning over a dusty bin, her hands scrounging about. I was thinking, “Oh, that lovely French suit!” when she lifted out a pair of green, hand-blown glass wine bottles several centuries old, and handed one to each of us as a keepsake.

Outside, I held mine up to the sun. It seemed a blessing directly from Louis to us, to bring his story out of the dustbin and into the light.

Writing this post on his birthday, I feel the urge to refill his bottle with wine and drink a toast. But surely Louis, a devout Catholic, knew this parable from Luke: “No man putteth new wine into old bottles… new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved.” I search the Internet to understand its meaning. The answer I prefer is that we must keep growing and changing… like the “new” wine of refreshable braille, I suppose… how old things can become new.

Happy Twenty-Thirteen, Louis.

___________________________

Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius by Mike Mellor has been published in seven languages.

A look behind the curtain…

On January 4, 2013 – Louis Braille’s 204th birthday – National Braille Press launches its first blog! Each week, we’ll feature stories, musings, and information on the braille code and its continued importance in the digital age, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at National Braille Press. We hope this will be an open forum for you to share your thoughts and questions. Enjoy!