"There's none so blind as they that won't see."
July 12, 2012 7:39 AM   Subscribe

Atlas for the Blind, 1837: "From the spectacular David Rumsey Map Collection, the 1837 “Atlas of the United States Printed for the Use of the Blind“, embossed heavy paper featuring lines, letters and geographical symbols, destined to help blind children to visualise geography. Here’s the whole book with zoomable pages." [Via: Socks-Studio]
posted by Fizz (19 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Awesome but how did one close the book and not smash the raised features of the maps/writing? I suppose the book could only contain a certain number of pages before the weight of it closed upon itself would just be too much.

Ah... after seeing the last link it seem to be only ~50 pages or so long. That makes more sense.
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:44 AM on July 12, 2012

Now my screen is all smeared with fingerprints.
posted by chavenet at 7:47 AM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

that is the craziest coincidence! I just tracked down a tumblr image to another image of the same material in the Rumsey collection and spent a few minutes poking around on the (overwhelming) site.

I opened MetaFilter to do a search for posts on the collection and this post was the current most recently-posted one!
posted by mwhybark at 7:55 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Amazing - this was 1837! The fonts and linework seem very modern, probably due to the necessity of sans-serif for the embossing process.

That someone would think to do this for the education of children, to allow them to "visualize" without sight the way our world is, and then design and print a book to do it back when books were very expensive to begin with, makes me happy to be a human. Just for today.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:30 AM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Lovely stuff. Something from the Rumsey collection that makes me happy, 'cos my usual MO on that site is:
  1. Find old streetcar maps for any random North American city.
  2. Work out just how freakin' large they were.
  3. Look at current transit maps.
  4. Despair.
posted by scruss at 9:01 AM on July 12, 2012

My usual MO on that site is:

1. Find maps based on current area of interest (say I saw a documentary on the Amazon recently)
2. Click through the entire site
3. Realize I haven't showered in 3 days
posted by desjardins at 9:58 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Slap*Happy - It appears to be the Howe tactile alphabet system, which must have been pretty new at the time of publication.

It is beautiful - but at the same time, kind of disorienting given that most maps we see have cities and other human-made landmarks on them.
posted by cobaltnine at 10:13 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Howe and others were constantly trying to come up with raised type that the blind could actually read. They couldn't, which is why Louis Braille devised his dot system (but the sighted leadership wouldn't accept it, because they couldn't read it themselves). The history of reading for the blind is fascinating, and depressing.
posted by Melismata at 11:49 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


You seem to have some knowledge of this history? Have there been any recent attempts to modify or implement a new way of reading for the blind? Other language suggestions? Or is this standard completely accepted as not going anywhere anytime soon?
posted by Fizz at 12:02 PM on July 12, 2012

The history of braille can be found here. While the reading of dots (vs. raised letters) has finally been accepted in the past 100 years (they finally actually asked blind people what was easier to read), there's always been a fight about which dots should go where.

Helen Keller had to learn three different dot systems: American Braille, English Braille (UK), and New York Point. NYP has been eliminated and the two Brailles are now much closer than they used to be, but even today people are arguing over which system is "better", whatever that means. Right now, they're fighting in the blindness community about merging two codes (the regular code, and the more complicated math code, which allows you to read nifty things like integral signs), and the fighting is not going away any time soon. People will always have their fierce opinions.
posted by Melismata at 12:26 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, here is a better history of dot-reading in the U.S.

To clarify a bit my answer to your question, Fizz, there's no serious effort now to have a major overhaul of braille. An a will always be an a, no one is seriously questioning that. There's just some minor squabbling going on, such as how to represent certain math characters and when.
posted by Melismata at 12:51 PM on July 12, 2012

I'm curious. As the Braille symbols for a through j appear to be re-used for the numerals 1-9 and 0; how do the blind handle math with variables? Do they use Braille, with some sort of identifier saying "this is a 1, not a variable a", or another system entirely? I suppose for simpler equations you could just say "avoid using A - J as variables," but I can think of other places where this could be a problem. The address "1212A Main Street", for instance. So how does it work?
posted by xedrik at 1:07 PM on July 12, 2012

Put the number sign before a-j and you have a number.

1 4
2 5
3 6

a b is dots 1-2. A 2 is dots 3-4-5-6, followed by dots 1-2. Dots 3-4-5-6 is the "number sign".

I could go on all day about the math system. It's called the "Nemeth Code"; search for this term if you're interested in more.
posted by Melismata at 1:10 PM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, and for 1212A Main street, there's also something known as a "letter sign" (dots 5-6). Put dots 5-6 before the last A, and the reader will know it's an A, not a 1.
posted by Melismata at 1:12 PM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

The most incredible thing about this (to me) is the print method, it looks like it is constructed out of a mix of a small number of tiles, placed in a grid and rotated to create the necessary shape... Looking closely, you can see the various squiggly tiles being reused to create features.

It reminds me of a overworld map in a video game.
posted by kzin602 at 1:35 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks, Melismata!
posted by xedrik at 2:22 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

That's absolutely fascinating. Thanks for posting that!

I spent some time working on how to make the web more accessible for the blind. I'm not blind myself, so it was always hard for me to really understand the user population that I was trying to help. These kinds of references really help.

posted by twoleftfeet at 7:16 PM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

how do the blind handle math with variables?

The world of blind mathematicians (PDF) is fascinating. There have been a number of blind mathematicians who excelled at geometry or topology - two areas which usually rely on a highly developed visual imagination - and the idea that a blind person, especially a person blind from birth, could excel at this seems hard to believe. From what I've read, blind people internally encode common geometric precepts (such as a line or a curve) as motions (I walk a line or a curve) and resolve these "visual" problems by resolving kinesthetic problems.
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:26 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're ever in Louisville, Kentucky, I recommend visiting the museum of the American Printing House for the Blind -- they've got similar paper tactile maps on display, as well as more durable ones in plastic for visitors to examine. It's fascinating stuff (and admission's free).
posted by asperity at 12:08 PM on July 13, 2012

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