Wanted: Stenographers skilled in shorthand. Others need not apply.
Author’s note: Herein is a very brief history of shorthand followed by two instances in which the dying or lost art has interfered with deciphering historic documents, some which may be important, and others which may be only fun.
Writing is hard.
No, not just composing, that’s definitely hard. What I’m talking about is the physical act of writing, of making letters and words fast enough to capture the lightning speed of one’s thoughts. Or, harder still, to accurately and “discreetly” record another person’s speech, which flows at an average of three words per second. Because this is the original reason for developing shorthand—not to take dictation or jot notes accurately in English class—but to record, precisely, conversations that one intends to put to use later.
Long before texting, the proliferation of at least 500 major English-language “shorthand” systems since the Renaissance attests to the importance of spreading accurate gossip.
Two of the most important systems historically are the British Pitman System, developed by Isaac Pitman in 1837, followed in 1888 in the United States by John Robert Gregg’s simplified system. Both use symbols that indicate common speech sounds. In the literal hands of an expert stenographer, more than 200 words per minute can be taken down with no more technology than a pencil and pad– more than the 180 words produced by an average speaker. Compare that to the typical 22-words-per-minute achieved by handwriting.
(Interestingly, Pitman’s brother Benn, who served in the Union Army of the Civil War, popularized and used the shorthand later as the government’s official court stenographer during the trials of President
Lincoln’s assassins.) Gregg’s shorthand doesn’t have many adherents while Pitman’s system has endured in part due to the British legal system, where shorthand records–but not tape recordings–are admissible as defense evidence in journalism libel cases.
Still, with the advent of stenography machines and audio recorders, shorthand is at best a dying art. So few are the practitioners, in fact, that important top secret documents may be safely left lying open on a desk so long as they are recorded in shorthand.
Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, historians do get their hands on those documents and need to find a translator. That is precisely what happened some years ago when documents were uncovered that recorded the secret 1962 Birmingham Chamber of Commerce meetings held to negotiate an end to racial segregation and street protests. Among the typewritten minutes of the famed “Senior Citizens Committee,” meetings turned over to the Birmingham Public Library was a steno pad written in shorthand that remains untranslated to this day.
Here at the History Center is another example. A year ago the center received a donation of 46 letters written in 1938-1940 by a Gorgas power plant clerk to his teenage girlfriend in Birmingham. The couple met taking classes at Wheeler’s Business College in Birmingham. Frequently throughout the 18-month correspondence, the writer uses shorthand to convey a private message.
What do the messages say? What is recorded on the steno pad? Anyone wanting to help translate, please reply to this blog or call the office at 205-202-4146.
Beside the ubiquitous Wikipedia articles on shorthand, information was drawn from the Birmingham Public library archives, Birmingham Chamber of Commerce Senior Citizens Committee Papers, 1963.
Digging Pennsylvania History, the Benn Pitman House http://www.diggingcincinnati.com/2013/01/the-benn-pitman-house.html
Leah Price Diary: The Death of Stenography in the London Review of Books, 2008, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n23 Jennifer Schuessler/leah-price/diary
A Brief History of Shorthand, by Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times.com http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/06/a-brief-history-of-shorthand/?_r=0
The shorthand Place, with link to chart of 500+ systems; http://www.t-script.co.uk/history.php
And for fun, the blog by Beryl Pratt, Long Live Pitman’s Shorthand http://long-live-pitmans-shorthand.blogspot.co.uk/