Shorthand in the Industrial and Victorian Ages

The History of Shorthand – Part Two

We talked about the beginnings of shorthand in the first installment of our “History of Shorthand” (see “Speaking of Shorthand, Here’s the Long and Short of It”) and left off in the late 1500s in England.  Since we are going to begin in England, we’ll refresh your memory by starting with the last paragraph of Part One.

England: Towards the end of the 16th century, there was a resurgence in the interest of shorthand.  In 1588, Timothy Bright published his book, Characterie: An Art of Shorte, which introduced a system with 500 symbols, each representing one word.  Bright’s book was followed by many others, most notably, John Willis’s Art of Stenography (1602), Edmond Willis’s An Abbreviation of Writing by Character (1618) and Thomas Shelton’s Short Writing (1626) which was later re-issued as Tachygraphy.

We’re now entering the Industrial Age and shorthand is now widely known in England and being given new names such as tachygraphy, tachography, zeitography, zeiglography, semigraphy or semography.  And, as you can imagine, because of all of the terms referring to it, it is apparent that shorthands popularity was increasing dramatically.  So, who was using it?  Just about everyone – the demand was high.  Court recorders, parliamentary reporters, diarists such as Pepys, clergymen and theatergoers.

At this time, Shelton’s system was the one that was rapidly growing in popularity mainly because it was the system used by Samuel Pepys for his diary and many of his other official papers.  Sir Isaac Newton  also used it in many of his notebooks.  Shelton’s system was a conglomerate of earlier systems.  Each consonant was represented by an arbitrary symbol, whereas the five vowels were represented by the position of the surrounding consonants.  For example, the symbol for B with the symbol for T drawn directly above it represents the word “bat”, while a B with a T below it means “but”, move the T to the top right and it represents an “E”or “bet”, move the T to the middle right and it becomes an  “I” or “bit” , and move the T to the lower right and it’s “O”.

Shorthand was no longer just for keeping the official record.  It was evolving into an efficient way to record one’s thoughts…and, yes, some were more unsavory than others!  For instance, early journalists used it to “eavesdrop” on conversations that were later put into print, much to the horror of the people being eavesdropped on!  And, it’s been reported that the clergy used shorthand while visiting other churches as a way to quietly steal their counterparts sermons!  Theatergoers reportedly used it to document their favorite quotes or scenes – similar to what we would do today with a camcorder or digital recording device.

According to Diary by Leah Price, Charles Dickens broke into his occupation of parliamentary reporting by memorizing Thomas Gurney’s book, Brachygraphy, or, an Easy and Compendious System of Shorthand.  Mr. Dickens never stopped being a reporter even after he became an author.  In fact, he carried this profession over to one of his most famous characters, David Copperfield, who credits his professional start to a shorthand manual.

Dickens wasn’t alone.  Samuel Pepys, Isaac Newton and an entire sub-culture of early adapters began to surface.  Suddenly the market was flooded with a mix of articles (condensed books) that were published in shorthand magazines.  Most popular among these were Robinson Crusoe, Around the World in Eighty Days, Aesop’s Fables and all of the Sherlock Holmes adventures.  Today, if you look hard enough, one can still find a Victorian shorthand edition of the Bible and A Christmas Carol hidden in major libraries.  This sudden popularity was prompted by the British postal system who created the “Penny Post”.  Shorter correspondence, articles, etc. could be mailed for a penny, thus making it affordable and possible to link the free-thinkers of that time with each other. Isaac Pitman’s Pitman’s Shorthand Weekly was one of the most popular shorthand “penny” magazines featuring not only well-known authors, but miscellaneous articles, illustrated jokes and prize competitions.

Since Pitman’s method of shorthand leads us to the 20th century, we’ll stop here and conclude this series next time with the modern age of shorthand where it becomes known as speed writing.

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