Stenography is dying out; so are stenographers. When I mention that I’m working on the history of shorthand, people tell me that their mother knew shorthand, or their grandmother, or their husband’s first wife. Google ‘stenography’ and you’ll find obituaries from small-town newspapers. Only bloggers now use the word, the new media’s name for what the old media do: shorthand, so to speak, for the charge that the newspapers and TV networks merely parrot press releases.
Journalism degrees in Britain still include a speedwriting test; the persistence of a requirement dropped in many other countries can be explained either by the peculiarities of British libel law (shorthand notes are admissible in journalists’ defence) or by the prohibition on the use of sound recording in court. But the distinction that emerged a century ago between mechanical devices (forbidden) and human scribes (permitted) is beginning to blur. In the US, court reporters have abandoned stenotype machines, whose keyboards use chord-like combinations to represent sounds, for a technique called voice writing. The ‘writer’ – really a speaker – repeats testimony into a microphone nestled in a hand-held mask that prevents her voice from being heard in court; the recording is later transcribed, usually with speech-recognition software. The Stenomask dates back to the 1940s, when an American court reporter encased a microphone first in a cigar-box, then in a tomato tin, and finally in an old coffeepot, but it didn’t become a standard fixture until the advent of speech recognition programs. It’s also cheaper: machine stenography takes three years to learn, voice writing six months.
Stenography didn’t begin life in the office or the courtroom. Only recently has your boss become the person you’re most likely to take dictation from: before the 1870s, shorthand was used more often for recording one’s own thoughts or for copying others’, not always with permission. In early modern England, tachygraphy, tachography, zeitography, zeiglography, semigraphy, semography all vied for the loyalty of court recorders, parliamentary reporters, diarists (think of Pepys), clergymen (who used it to rip off each other’s sermons) and theatregoers (who used it the way some filmgoers use a handicam). Dickens broke into parliamentary reporting by memorising Thomas Gurney’s book, Brachygraphy, or, an Easy and Compendious System of Shorthand. Shorthand enabled upward mobility, but it couldn’t take the place of a classical education: when his fellow journalist R.H. Hutton asserted that ‘in some important intellectual, if not mechanical respects, Mr Dickens did not cease to be a reporter even after he became an author, ’ the social connotations of ‘mechanic’ must have grated. Like Dickens, David Copperfield owes his professional start to a ten-shilling shorthand manual:
The changes that were rung upon dots, which in such a position meant such a thing, and in such another position something else, entirely different; the wonderful vagaries that were played by circles; the unaccountable consequences that resulted from marks like flies’ legs; the tremendous effects of a curve in a wrong place; not only troubled my waking hours, but reappeared before me in my sleep. When I had groped my way, blindly, through these difficulties, and had mastered the alphabet, which was an Egyptian Temple in itself, there then appeared a procession of new horrors, called arbitrary characters; the most despotic characters I have ever known; who insisted, for instance, that a thing like the beginning of a cobweb, meant expectation, and that a pen-and-ink sky-rocket, stood for disadvantageous.
By the time David Copperfield appeared in 1849, the days and nights that Dickens spent studying an 1824 reprint of a 1750 manual must have felt doubly galling thanks to the publication, in 1837, of Isaac Pitman’s new method, Stenographic Soundhand. Like Esperanto a generation later, shorthand spread through a counter-culture of early adopters – spirit-rappers, teetotallers, vegetarians, pacifists, anti-vivisectionists, anti-tobacconists. Pitman himself associated shorthand with ‘the dawn of religious freedom’ and ‘the dawn of political freedom’ (verbatim transcription, he claimed, prevented parliamentary reporters from privileging favourites). His empire grew with the British postal system. In 1840, he condensed his method into a ‘Penny Plate’ the right size for sending through the new penny post. A network of ‘gratuitous correctors’ (Pitman’s language veered between pedantry and hucksterism) encouraged autodidacts in the provinces to send one another their shorthand exercises to be marked; later, chain letters called ‘ever-circulators’, composed in shorthand, were sent through the imperial mail. When correspondence was conducted in shorthand, Pitman claimed, ‘friendships grow six times as fast as under the withering blighting influence of the moon of longhand.’ Those exchanges tended to link men to other men, with the notable exception of a girl called Martha Watts, who practised her shorthand by sending Pitman love letters. When the suspicious Mrs Pitman finally broke into her husband’s desk, she had to persuade a student to transcribe them for her: Pitman had been too busy spreading shorthand across the world to teach it to his wife.