When most people talk about writing “shorthand,” they usually mean writing in abbreviations or euphemisms. Maybe they use incomplete sentences while taking notes. But that isn’t really what shorthand means.
The History of Shorthand
Shorthand scripts date back to ancient Egypt. Intricate hieroglyphics took a long time to write. That’s why they usually ornamented monuments. Egyptians created shorthand versions for day-to-day use.
Modern shorthand was popular in business and in the courts as recently as the last century. Shorthand made it possible to record dictation at a finger-blistering 120 words per minute.
Sir Isaac Pitman invented the most popular system in 1837. Later, John Robert Gregg’s 1888 adaptation rose to prominence in the United States. Both systems used similar principles, but their differences were still significant. In fact, disagreement about which system was better led to a fascinating, amusing, and bitter rivalry between Goldey College and Beacom College before their merger.
Mr. Beacom’s sudden departure from Goldey College to begin his own school in 1900 has long been the topic of colorful speculation. Clearly Beacom was young, ambitious and saw a golden opportunity for establishing his own school amidst the growing economy of Wilmington. But one thing is clear: he did disagree bitterly with Mr. Goldey about, of all things, the correct technique to teach shorthand. Verbal lore reports vehement arguments, one of which ended in both throwing steno pads at the other, though some doubt this actually occurred and there is certainly no written record.
Mr. Goldey was an advocate of the older, more established Pittman Method – “used in courts, government, law offices, and even the White House”- as reported in his school’s catalog. Beacom was devoted to the newer Gregg Shorthand and, in his school’s catalog, called Pittman “old and cumbersome,” while referring to “those schools who overcharge students in time, while short changing them in results” – obviously aimed at Goldey College. Goldey retaliated by stating that those who used Gregg were “shorthand ignoramuses.” This “catalog battle” would continue for years. Eventually each school reluctantly offered both methods for a period of time, but Beacom’s Gregg shorthand was to eventually prevail nationwide.
Goldey-Beacom College, 125 Years of GBC Facts and Trivia
How Shorthand Worked
Writing dictation letter-for-letter is difficult to do at speed. English letters, while perhaps not as cumbersome as some other alphabets, still have a lot of lines and flourishes. Shorthand used more efficient strokes. Fundamentally, modern shorthand was comprised of lines, arcs, dots, and circles. Each system combined the following variables to represent different sounds:
- Straight lines made at different angles
- Ninety-degree arcs cut from eight different places on a circle
- Hooks and curls at the ends of lines
- Character scale and position relative to the lines on the page
- Varied fountain pen pressure to draw thin or thick strokes
- Dots representing different vowels when placed at various locations of the word
Pitman and Gregg also used a lot of special shortcuts. The symbols mostly flowed together like cursive, saving pen reposition time between letters.
Shorthand was an efficient note-taking system that sped up professional communication. Long transcriptions could be copied accurately and completely. Notes were shared between professionals across a number of industries, and they still retained their meaning.
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