EVOLUTION OF A TIMELESS PROFESSION

Few professions are as old and time-honored as shorthand reporting, for it is the very act of writing, itself, which has provided to all civilizations the knowledge of earlier thoughts and utterances.  The development of shorthand parallels the literacy of civilizations and the actual creation of written language, 5000 years ago. 

Tracing their legacy to the Ancient Scribes, modern machine shorthand writing experts use sophisticated writing devices and embrace modern computer technology.  The combination enables them to produce text instantly, and simultaneously transmit it across the room and around the world.  This also enables the display of captions seen during live televised broadcasts and provides other communication access. 


The Gallery of Shorthand, located in the federal courthouse at Central Islip, New York is the world’s only public display devoted to explaining the evolution of shorthand through the centuries.  Enlarging on the tradition followed by early shorthand historians, The Gallery uses ten pivotal events to recount momentous events which helped define the origin and evolution of this timeless profession.  Here, The Gallery presents an abridged version of its Ten Epochs. 

 

Epoch I

Ancient Sumerian Scribes – 3500 BC

The earliest form of written expression began in 3500 BC, in Southeastern Mesopotamia (now Iraq).  By 3100 BC the Sumerians developed cuneiform script.  Sumerian Scribes were entrusted to preserve all important thought.

 

Ancient Egyptian Scribes -  3100 BC

The Egyptians devised two scripts, Hieratic (3200 BC) and Demotic (650 BC), as alternatives to hieroglyphics.   Males, who could attend scribe school as young as 5 years of age, were required to acquire vast knowledge.  Graduate scribes kept records of laws, business and property transactions, and had the solemn duty to transcribe sacred literature. 

 

Epoch II - CHINESE SHORTHAND - 206 BC

CAOSHU and XIGSHU

During Imperial China clerks came to use abbreviated characters to record court proceedings and criminal confessions.  These “shorthand” records were then used to create more formal transcripts using Grass Script and Running Script.

 

Epoch III - ROMAN SHORTHAND SCRIBES - 63 BC

Cicero invented the first system of short writing in 63 BC – erroneously attributed by many historians to Cicero’s slave, Marcus Tillius Tiro, for whom Tironian Notes was named.  Cicero created shorthand for the purpose of preserving for future generations the debates in the Roman Senate. 

 

Epoch IV – ABOLITION OF SHORTHAND - 500 AD

The Middle Ages were days of superstition, ignorance, and bigotry.  Shorthand was seen as secret writing, black magic, and its practitioners often persecuted. 

 

RENEWED INTEREST  - 1180 AD

Monk John of Tilbury published an abbreviated word system prompted by Thomas Becket’s interest in preserving sermons.  This began a transition to later short systems of writing, although additional efforts would lay dormant for another 300 years. 

 

Epoch V - Early English-Language Shorthand Systems

“The Vital 250 Years”

Eagerness to preserve pulpit sermons created renewed interest in fast systems of writing.  Inventors and teachers increased rapidly following Timothe Bright’s 1588 invention of the first useable English-language method.    

Two hundred years after Timothe Bright, Samuel Taylor, perhaps the greatest of the early masters, invented a system which became the most extensively used for the ensuing 60 years.

 

Epoch VI – First Practical English Systems

1840 – Phonography (Pitman)

1888 – Light-Line Phonography (Gregg)

Two inventors stand above all others as the most pivotal in shaping the profession of shorthand reporting – Sir Isaac Pitman and Dr. John Robert Gregg.   Triggered by Phineas Bailey’s “A Pronouncing Stenography,” these were the first complete systems based on phonetics.  Each endured for decades and demonstrated unparalleled records of speed and accuracy. 

 

EPOCH VII - PROLIFERATION OF SHORTHAND IN EUROPE

Preserving sermons lead to the spread of shorthand in 16th Century Europe.  In 18th Century England, the demand for shorthand was triggered by demand to read debates of Parliament.  And the 19th Century Industrial Revolution created need for stenographers to ease the burgeoning paperwork.   By 1883 Europe had some 3,000 shorthand systems.

 

EPOCH VIII - PROLIFERATION OF SHORTHAND IN AMERICA

The geographic proximity of the US Northeast to Europe made it a natural first stop for America-bound Europeans, and New York became a mecca for many transplanted shorthand authors and writers.

Shorthand was first seen in US courtrooms by 1865.  The Congress and Senate were hiring reporters by 1873.  In the early 1900s, well known reporters were enticed to report high-profile trials, giving great visibility to the profession.  Reporters were demonstrating the ability to write with great accuracy at record speeds.

 

EPOCH IX – MACHINE SHORTHAND

Invention of typewriters by the late 1800s helped ease the business of the Industrial Revolution.  America’s fascination with machines led to invention of the first “shorthand typewriter” in 1879.  With invention in 1885 of the first word-at-a-stroke mechanism, mechanical shorthand was born.  The 1911 Ireland machine defined the shorthand keyboard layout. 

 

EPOCH X – SHORTHAND IN THE 21st CENTURY

Shorthand machines replaced the pen by the 1940s. 

Using computer technology to create instant transcriptions, today’s shorthand experts produce the captions seen on TV screens during live broadcasts and assist the hearing impaired in classrooms and other settings.

 

SUMMARY

Shorthand is one of mankind’s most misunderstood and unappreciated skills, often considered old fashioned.  

From the stylus on wax used in the Roman Senate, to the quill pen of the 18th century, to the mechanical pen of the 19th century, shorthand artisans have occupied front-row seats at historic events.  Today’s artisans use that odd-looking, high-tech digital writing device to create text immediately and can simultaneously transmit it worldwide. 

Notably, the US government, after scrutinizing all methodologies available to provide complete transparency, chose realtime stenographic reporters to provide the press with same-day transcripts of perhaps the most significant proceedings of this century – the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay.  Far from an old fashioned art!

The Gallery of Shorthand is a public service authorized by the Board of Judges of the US District Court, Eastern District of New York, and GSA. 

It is located in the main rotunda of the US District Court in Central Islip, New York – about 40 miles east of New York City. 

Visitors are welcome to The Gallery any day of the year that the federal court is open, during normal court hours. 

The Director conducts tours by prearrangement.  Please call Dominick Tursi at 631-712-6108. 

[Click here for The Gallery of Shorthand website]



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Spring 2017 Transcript