By Terrie Todd
I suppose it gives away my age to reveal that I learned shorthand in high school. Got pretty good at it, too, since I was chosen to represent my class at a regional office procedures contest. I didn’t make the podium in shorthand, but I did win a first-place medal for typing at the same event. It’s just as well. While pen shorthand soon afterward became obsolete, typing has served me well in my roles as an Administrative Assistant and as an author.
Of course, if you’ve ever typed “LOL” or used an emoji, you know shorthand is not truly obsolete. Ever since man began to communicate in writing—from hieroglyphics to modern words, he’s been looking for shortcuts. It seems every language known to humans has some form of shorthand. One popular system in ancient Rome was invented by Cicero’s secretary, Tiro, in order to record his speeches. Certain professions, like the medical world, have their own forms.
|Roman Emporer Cisero|
|Charles Dickens knew shorthand.|
|Gregg shorthand is the form I learned in high school.|
Gregg shorthand is named for its inventor, John Robert Gregg (1867-1948). Like many useful developments, this one has its roots in a tragic story. Born in Shantonagh, Ireland, Gregg moved to Rockcorry in 1872. On his second day of school, the schoolmaster caught John Robert whispering to a schoolmate. He banged the two children’s heads together, damaging John Robert’s hearing to the point where he was unable to understand his teacher or fully participate in school. As a result, John Robert was perceived by everyone as mentally challenged.
When John Robert was ten years old, a friend of his father’s visited their village for the weekend. The man was a journalist named Annesley. In church that Sunday, Annesley took verbatim notes of the sermon using Pitman shorthand. Fascinated at this skill, Mr. Gregg required his children to learn Pitman shorthand as well—except for John, who was considered too simple-minded to learn it.
Although none of his siblings succeeded with the system, John Robert learned a different shorthand system from a book. Since hearing wasn’t required, nothing slowed him down. Before the age of 13, John Robert was forced to leave school to help provide the family with income. He earned five shillings a week in a law office.
In 1888, Gregg published and copyrighted his own system of shorthand, releasing it in England in a brochure entitled Light-Line Phonography: The Phonetic Handwriting.
In 1893, he emigrated to the United States. That year he published Gregg Shorthand which saw increasing success. Gregg settled in Chicago and wrote many books on shorthand and business practices for the Gregg Publishing Company.
Meanwhile, an American inventor named Ward Stone Ireland was using a typewriter one day when he began to consider the potential of a machine that might type a whole word with one stroke of the keyboard. After many years of experimentation, he patented such a machine in 1910. He then established the Universal Stenotype Company to both manufacture the machines and train teachers in their use. As a result, Ireland is considered the father of the modern shorthand machine.
John Robert Gregg
While pen shorthand has gone the way of the dodo bird (and cursive writing seems to be following!), machine stenography is still a highly marketable skill. Stenographers can offer services as medical transcriptionists, real-time TV captioners, as well as in numerous accessibility fields. Today’s machines allow stenographers to type 300 words per minute or more, twice as fast as the average person speaks. This is because they have only 22 keys which can be pressed simultaneously in varying combinations to form “chords” of syllables. For example, while it takes me eight strokes to type the word “calendar,” a stenographer can type it in three strokes by pressing the chords that make the syllables “cal”, then “en” and “dar.”
An early stenography machine. A modern stenography machine.
I wonder if I’m too old to learn this skill?
Terrie Todd’s fictional character learns secretarial skills
to improve her position in her third novel, Bleak Landing. She’s also the author of The Silver Suitcase, Maggie’s War, Rose Among Thornes, and The Last Piece. A split-time novel, From the Ashes, will release in 2022. Terrie is represented by Mary DeMuth of Books & Such Literary Agency. She lives with her husband, Jon, in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Canada where they raised their three children. They are grandparents to five boys.