IT IS strange that the origin of two of the greatest instrumentalities that have made for civilization, and have been so potent a factor in the progress of the human race—writing and shorthand writing—is wrapped in entire obscurity. The origin of writing, as of shorthand, is involved in uncertainty, although many ingenious hypotheses have been advanced by learned philologists attempting to locate definitely the time in the development of the world when man first communicated with man by the aid of written signs, and when the first attempt was made to record such utterances. This much, however, is certain, communication by signs is almost as ancient as speech itself.

Shorthand—When First Introduced.

When shorthand was first used has been the theme of writers for many generations, some attempting to trace it back to the time of the Phœnicians and the Hebrews, but the views of these writers are unsupported by history. Passages from the Bible and the apocryphal fourth book of Ezra have been quoted as authority for such an assumption, notably: "My tongue is the pen of a ready writer"; "When Jeremiah called Baruch, the son of Neriah, and Baruch wrote from the mouth of Jeremiah all the words of the Lord which he had spoken unto me with his mouth, and then wrote them with ink in the book. " While it is reasonable to suppose that Baruch wrote from dictation—taking the words from the mouth of Jeremiah—the assumption that he wrote shorthand would hardly be tenable. Frequent mention is made in the literature of those days, of the "ready writer" or "quick writer," which naturally leads us to believe that there were in those times persons who followed the profession of amanuensis, and it would be logical to suppose that they used some brief signs in order to facilitate their work; but that there was a system of shorthand writing, as we now know it, is hardly probable.

If such a valuable art as shorthand writing had been known at that time some mention of it surely would be found in the literature of the people, but nowhere in the writings of the Jews before the birth of Christ do we find any allusion to it. On the other hand, after the birth of Christ, frequent mention is made of "competent quick writers."

Proäresius in Eunapius said: "I wish that quick writers be given to me, and assigned to a place before the eyes of all, that they may daily note down the sentences of Themes, while this day I want them to follow me word for word."

Mr. Norman P. Heffley's translation of "Geschichte und Literatur der Geschwindschreibkunst von Dr. Julius Woldemar Zeibig" (Ancient and Mediaeval Shorthand), after reviewing the assertions of different writers on the antiquity of shorthand writing, says:

Shorthand the Servant of Oratory.

"If we consider what value and significance the art of oratory had in Greece, that it was the constant companion of statesmanship; if we consider, which is undoubtedly the case, that mention was made in writings of the ancients and by the commentators on the same, of all particulars regarding public orators,—then it is equally sure that so powerful an innovation as shorthand writing, the best servant of oratory, would have been mentioned, not merely incidentally, but specifically, if this art had really been invented and practiced in Greece before the days of Cicero.

"Primarily let us ask, if a contemporary of Xenophon knew anything about tachygraphy, how is it that no one alluded to this art? We have not found a passage from which proof against the existence of this art can easily be adduced. We alluded to the words of Thucydides: 'As respecting speeches made by the individuals either when they are about to begin war, or when they are fairly in it, it was difficult for me to retain in the memory with accuracy that which had been spoken and heard by myself, as well as that which was reported to me from other places; but as the individuals, according to my opinion, seem to have spoken most appropriately upon the subject in question, I shall here give as near as possible the whole meaning or sense of what was said.'"

Specimen of Tironean notes by Marcus Tullius Tiro.

In about the year 63 B.C. tachygraphy was known and practiced in Rome. It has been claimed that Cicero was the founder of shorthand, but history does not support the claim. It is easy to believe that he furthered the art to the best of his ability because of the advantages it offered him, but undoubtedly to Marcus Tullius Tiro, the freedman and friend of Cicero, belongs the honor of having invented the system of shorthand writing which has been preserved to us in the Tironean notes, our knowledge of which is gained from the wax tablets which were in general use by the Romans at that time.

Among his contemporary practitioners of the art were Vipsanius Philargyrus, a freedman of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa; Aquila, a freedman of Caius Cilnius Maecenas.

Pliny the younger relates of Pliny the elder, that he constantly had a writer at his side.

From the decline of the Tironean notes until the sixteenth century stenography in its true sense was not known. During the Middle Ages nothing was heard of shorthand.

Bright's Method of Shorthand.

In Elizabeth's time, 1588, a work on shorthand writing by Timothe Bright, "Doctor of Phisike," was brought out, entitled "Characterie—an arte of shorte, swifte and secrete writing by character." Dr. Bright was a well-known physician of his day, was, for a time, physician in St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London, and later a rector of churches at Methley and Berwick-in-Elmet, in Yorkshire. He is also known as the author of several medical and religious works. His system of shorthand was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth.

Bright's method was very crude and wholly incapable of accomplishing the purpose for which it was invented. The following are the alphabetical signs used:

"K" and "q" were represented by the same sign as "c." Although the system was not alphabetical, the author alludes to the signs as such. Each character was given four slopes, and there were twelve ways of varying the base, thus forty-eight words could be written with each letter of the alphabet by varying the base.

Bales' System of Shorthand.

Two years after Bright's treatise appeared, Peter Bales, a teacher of penmanship, brought out a work on shorthand, of which he stated, a knowledge may "easily be attained by one moneth's studie, and performance by one moneth's practice." Thus we find a precedent for the "short-term" method of stenography at almost the inception of the art, a question which has ever since been the cause of dissension and wrangle among its teachers and promulgators.

Willis' System.

The next candidate for honors in shorthand authorship was John Willis, a Bachelor of Divinity who, in 1502, published anonymously at London, "The art of stenographie, teaching by plaine and certaine Rules, to the Capacitie of the meanest, and for the use of all professions, The way of Compendious writing." To this author is due the credit for using a true stenographic alphabet. Willis discarded superfluous letters, and thus paved the way for the phonetic representation of words. "In every word," he said, "those letters are to be omitted which are rarely or not at all found, whether they be vowels or consonants." Later this author published another work under his own name, entitled, "Spelling Characterie." This system had quite a vogue for a time, for it passed through thirteen or more editions.

In 1618 a work entitled, "An Abbreviation of Writing by Character," in which new characters were chosen for most of the letters, was brought out by Edmond Willis.

Other Systems.

After the success of Willis' system no fewer than half a dozen systems were published before the advent of "Semography" by William Cartwright, printed in 1642 by Jeremiah Rich, his nephew. This system attained great prominence, and several modifications of it were brought out by different authors.

Following in Cartwright's path William Mason, thirty years later, published "A Pen Pluck'd from an Eagle's Wing." Many imitators of Mason sprang up, and it was from the system of this author, "La Plume Volante," published about 1720, that Thomas Gurney got the material which he used in his work as a stenographer. Extending over the next one hundred and thirty years, twenty editions of Gurney's works were issued.

In 1767 the system of shorthand invented by John Byrom, a fellow of the Royal Society, was published. The title of this book was "The Universal English Shorthand," and it was published some time after Byrom's death. It is still used to some extent in England.

In 1778 Dr. William Fordyce Mavor published a system which he afterward revised and republished under the title of "Universal Stenography." This system became very popular, passing through ten editions, and is still used by a few writers in London.

Following Byrom, Samuel Taylor published, in London, 1786, a system which marked another era in stenographic literature. This system, like many of its predecessors, became very popular, and inspired with ambition numerous imitators. It was modified by Odell, Harding, Gould, and others, and in this form passed through many editions. Isaac Pitman, whose work is mentioned later, was a writer of Taylor's system for seven years previous to the publication of his work. Mr. Jacob Pitman, in giving a biographical sketch of his brother Isaac before the Victorian (Australia) Phonetic Society many years ago, said: "During this period of his life (between 1830-1837) we both wrote Taylor's system as improved by Harding." In many respects there is a close resemblance in the first alphabet between Pitman's consonantal representation and in the pairing of consonants and that of Taylor. It is not unlikely that Pitman received his inspiration from Taylor's system.

In the early development of the art of shorthand writing the work was done almost exclusively in England. In Germany and France and other European countries phonographic writers seemed content to adapt to their language the systems devised in England. Jacques Cossard published the first method in France in 1651.

The earliest method published in Germany was an adaptation of Shelton's English system, in 1679. The two leading German systems of to-day are those of Gabelsberger and Stolze. Stolze's method was not published until seventeen years after its invention.

Modern Shorthand.

With the publication of Isaac Pitman's shorthand, entitled "Stenographic Soundhand," in 1837, the greatest epoch in the history of English shorthand began. Pitman's shorthand may be said to be the first of the really scientific instruments of rapid writing that have been devised, and the inspiration of the wonderful development of the art that has taken place since its invention. Through its development by numerous adapters, Pitmanic shorthand is known, in one form or another, in every country of the globe.

In 1840 Pitman brought out a new edition of his shorthand, in which was introduced numerous changes, and the system was called "Phonography." New editions were brought out in rapid succession and the system was further developed and improved until 1857, when the tenth edition appeared with a reversal of the vowel scale. This innovation produced a revolt among the writers of the system. The change was generally accepted in England, but in America phonographers as generally rejected it.

The contest over this bone of contention was long and determined. Benn Pitman, a brother of Isaac Pitman, who had brought this system to America in 1855, adhered to the old vowel scale, as did also Andrew J. Graham (1854), and the other phonographic publishers.

Of the twelfth edition Mr. Pitman said: "We have used up all the stenographic material, and, as we—who know the system so well—believe, have used it in the best manner. If anyone can produce additional material—some stenographic sign, any book or crook or circle or straight or curved stroke, in any direction, that is not employed in stenography, or of which he can show a better use—we are willing to listen to him; but until some such proposition as that comes before us there will be no change in phonographic writing."

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© 1998, 2002 by Lynn Waterman