Charles K. Bliss (1897–1985), Australian semiotician and inventor of Blissymbolics.
Bliss was born Karl Kasiel Blitz, the eldest of four children to Michel Anchel and Jeanette Blitz, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire near Russia. The family were impoverished and the senior Blitz was turned fed the family as an optician, mechanic and wood turner.
Later on Bliss said that the symbols on his father’s circuit diagrams made instant sense to him. They were a “logical language”. He was similarly impressed by chemical symbols which he thought could be read by anyone, regardless of their mother tongue.
Bliss’ early life was difficult. It was cold and his family were poor and hungry. He suffered anti-Semitic taunts.
When Bliss was eight years old, Russia lost the Russo-Japanese War, Russian pogroms against the Jews accelerated and refugees came into Bliss’ town from the nearby Russian town of Kishenev. Also in 1905 Bliss saw a slide show of the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition of Weyprecht and Payer. It inspired him to study engineering to improve technology for ordinary people.
Detention and the War
Bliss graduated from the Vienna University of Technology as a chemical engineer in 1922. He joined an electronics company and rose to be chief of the patent department.
In March 1938 the Anschluss united Austria to Greater Germany and Bliss, as a Jew, was sent to Dachau concentration camp, near Munich. Later he was moved to Buchenwald. His wife, Claire, a Catholic, made constant efforts to have him released. He was released but was required to leave the country for England immediately. In England, Bliss tried to bring his wife to him, however, the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 made this impossible.
Bliss arranged for Claire to escape Germany via his family in Czernowitz, Romania (now called Chernivtsi and in the Ukraine). Needing to leave there, Claire moved on to Greece and safety – until October 1940 when the Italians invaded Greece. The couple were re-united on Christmas Eve 1940, after Claire continued east to Shanghai and Charles went west to Shanghai via Canada and Japan.
After the Japanese occupied Shanghai, Bliss and his wife were placed into the Hongkew ghetto. Claire, as a German and a Christian had the option of claiming her German citizenship, applying for a divorce and being released. She did not do so but accompanied Bliss into the ghetto.
In Shanghai, Bliss became interested in Chinese ideograms. He studied them and learnt how to read Chinese newspapers. However, he noticed that he was reading them in German! That is the ideograms were tied to German meanings, without him going through the Chinese spoken word. With ideograms for his inspiration, Bliss set out to develop a system of writing by pictures. At that time Bliss had not become aware of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz’s “Universal Symbolism”.
Bliss and his wife migrated to Australia after the war, reaching Australia in July 1946. His semiotic ideas met with universal rejection. Bliss, without any Australian or Commonwealth qualifications had to work as a manual labourer to support his family. He worked on his system of symbols at night. Bliss and his wife became Australian subjects.
Originally Bliss had called his system “World Writing” because the aim was to establish a series of symbols that would be understood by all, regardless or language. Bliss then decided an English-language name was too restricted and called the system Semantography. In Sydney in 1949 Bliss published the three-volume International Semantography: A non-alphabetical Symbol Writing readable in all languages. There was no great positive reaction. For the next four years Claire Bliss sent 6,000 letters to educators and universities, to no better effect.
Bliss’ wife died in 1961 after years of ill-health.
In 1965 Bliss published a second edition of his work – Semantography (Blissymbolics).
It was about this time that the increase in international tourism convinced many that only a pictorial symbol language could be understood by all. Bliss made sure his idea was attached to his name, hence Blissymbolics.
In 1971 Bliss made the happy discovery that, since 1965, children with cerebral palsy at a particular centre in Canada were being taught to communicate with his symbols. Bliss saw it as a vindication. The world copyright for use of his symbols with handicapped children was licensed to the Blissymbolics Communication Foundation in Canada.
It is said that he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. However who nominated him, and when he was nominated is unknown. The same source () says that he asked for his nomination to be withdrawn when he found out Le Duc Tho, founder of the Indochinese Communist Party was nominated also. Le Duc Tho refused the 1973 award.
Bliss was made a Member of the Order of Australia (A.M.) in 1976 for services to the community, in particular, handicapped children. He died in 1985.
- 1949 International Semantography: A non-alphabetical Symbol Writing readable in all languages.
- 1965 Semantography (Blissymbolics).