Thick fingers of smoke from the burning Imo beckoned to those who had heard the ship crash into the Mont-Blanc in Halifax harbour.

Many on shore pressed their faces to their windows, moments before an explosion sent glass and debris flying for more than two kilometres — blinding at least 37 people and partially blinding at least 217 others, according to archival records.

The devastation 100 years ago, which also killed 2,000 people, prompted an outpouring of funding from across North America to help teach those who had been blinded suddenly to learn to function without sight.

And the Halifax School for the Blind, which had previously only taught children, opened its doors to the victims of both the explosion and the veterans returning without sight after the First World War.

As part of the Halifax Explosion centennial, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind has released an exhibit chronicling the inventions that changed blind literacy.

It begins with the man who invented braille.

Jane Beaumont CNIB blind literacy Nova Scotia map

CNIB's volunteer archivist Jane Beaumont demonstrates how blind readers can trace the outline of a raised map of Nova Scotia map made using a thermal printer. (Robert Short/CBC)

Braille vs. Moon type

Louis Braille lost his sight as a toddler following an accident in his father's workshop. He's been described as having a fierce determination to learn to read; when Braille learned of the code that French soldiers were using in the Napoleonic war, he adapted it for himself. 

A more sophisticated version of the original code, braille is made up of six dots that are raised or absent to indicate which letter of the Roman alphabet they represent. Braille first published the system in 1829.

"It eventually became the international standard and is used widely, even today," says Jane Beaumont, the volunteer archivist at CNIB. "But before braille became the standard there was quite a fight — we call it the battle of the formats."

Moon type

Moon type, developed by William Moon in Britain in the 1840s, is not as popular as braille. Its supporters, however, argue that it's easier for those who were once sighted to learn to read the raised letter than braille's raised dots. (Robert Short/CBC)

The battle was also a cultural one.

William Moon developed his own version of raised text in the 1840s after he went blind himself. Unlike Louis Braille, Moon lost his sight in his 20s — and supporters of his writing system argued that it was easier for adults to grasp than braille. It more closely resembles the letters of the alphabet.

And in 1877, the Halifax School for the Blind started teaching it, Beaumont says.

There are different theories about why the French code won out. But Beaumont says it's likely because braille spread more quickly.

"It was already in several countries and, if you think about it, it's actually language independent," she says. "Any language that uses the Roman alphabet can adopt braille, whereas Moon was much more localized."

Seeing through your fingertips

While braille relies on a person's fingertips to see letters, teachers use the same concept to help their students visualize images. A thermal printer can create the raised lines of a dog's body, filling in the centre with another texture.

That combined with sitting next to the animal to feel its fur, to run one's hand along it to get its shape, help children to identify objects or with mapping geography.

Slate and stylus blind literacy writing

Jane Beaumont, CNIB's volunteer archivist, demonstrates how to use a slate and stylus, a method of writing braille by hand. The sentences must be written backwards as the paper will be flipped over to read it. (Robert Short/CBC)

"So they're learning both shapes and words," Beaumont says, outlining first an apple with the pad of her finger before dragging it across the raised dots beneath spelling out the word: a-p-p-l-e.

"It's exactly the same as other children's books."  

Software and screenreaders

At seven, it took Robert Ganong less than a year to fluently read braille. He had very limited vision and moved to the Halifax School for the Blind in order to learn a new way to communicate.

And roughly five decades later, he contends the writing system remains a critical tool for children even as other adaptive technology like screen readers, Siri and other voice-recognition software emerge.

"With braille you actually have your fingers on the letters and written words so it really is helpful and practical in terms of spelling and actually recognizing what words look like," he says. 

Raised map of Nova Scotia blind literacy

Raised maps made with thermal printers help people with vision loss to visualize where places might be. This map of Nova Scotia uses different textures to indicate national parks and towns. (Robert Short/CBC)

​But Ganong says those technologies are critical to finding work — particularly software that will read a computer screen and accept audio commands for navigating the internet, email and word processors. 

"Braille is great and kind of gives a blind person a connection to that literacy benchmark, but it's the modern technologies that I think will carry a person to successful higher levels of education and employment."

The CNIB exhibit lives online and will remain on display at the Halifax Central Library until Oct. 16. 

The exhibit also celebrates a new partnership between the province's libraries and the Centre for Equitable Library Access. The agreement will allow those with vision or print disabilities to access more than 400,000 publications in braille, audio or other formats for people with print disabilities.

Clifford braille books Halifax public library

The Halifax Public Library has access to more than 400,000 publications for blind readers through a partnership with the Centre for Equitable Library Access. (Robert Short/CBC)