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History of Stenography

Whence did this wondrous mystic art arise Of painting speech and speaking to the eyes, That we, by tracing magic lines,are taught How both to color and embody thought?

(Taken from N. P. Heffley's Biography of the Father of Stenography, Marcus Tullius Tiro.)

Stenography Defined

Speed has never been a criterion in the development of written languages. There was no reason for it to be. As a result, the best speed normal cursive writing can produce is about 35 words per minute (wpm). Human speech normally runs between 120-150 wpm so when the desire to record it became important, a faster method needed to be devised. Shorthand is that system.

"Stenography" itself comes from the Greek stenos (which means narrow or small and refers to the narrowing of words into symbols) and graphos (writing). Even though the word has come to be used synonymously with the term "shorthand," it technically is the physical process of transcribing in shorthand either with a writing implement or a stenography machine.

Shorthand was used more widely in the past, before the invention of recording and dictation machines. Until recently, shorthand was considered an essential part of secretarial training as well as being useful for journalists. Shorthand used to be something that any woman who wanted to work in an office through most of the twentieth century had to learn, because working in an office meant you were a secretary.

Stenography is a special type of shorthand which operates phonetically. This means that a stenographic transcript is actually unique to the person who generated it, as each person hears and interprets sounds slightly differently. Typically, a stenograph machine is used to transcribe information such as testimony, and then the court reporter reads over the transcript and generates a full version which can be read by anyone.

Definition of "Phonetic Shorthand"

A system of shorthand in which the writing represents the component sounds of words without regard to the usual method of spelling is called "phonetic," to distinguish it from that kind of shorthand in which the characters are used simply as substitutes for the letters of the alphabet. The latter kind, which may be called alphabetic shorthand, was formerly the most in use and is still practiced to some extent, but the phonetic method is now generally considered the most advantageous.

Advantages of the Phonetic Method

Among the many reasons that may be given in favor of the phonetic method for shorthand writing, the following are perhaps the most important.

First, in following a speaker, if one has to write according to the rules of orthography, his memory is constantly taxed by the irregularity and frequent uncertainty of the usual mode of spelling. His progress, therefore, will always be impeded in proportion as he endeavors to be correct in his spelling.

On the other hand, if he uses the phonetic method, after he has once acquired the habit of writing down the words according to the sound, a habit which a little practice will render familiar and easy, there will no longer be any uncertainty or hesitation. The writing will then be almost mechanical, and the memory can be more freely employed in keeping up with the speaker. The importance of this advantage may be shown by referring to some of the more obvious defects of the usual mode of spelling.

Second, by using the phonetic method, the writer can take down more readily and accurately names of persons or places or unusual words of which the proper spelling may be unknown to him, or uncertain. The sounds he hears being written down furnish the material from which he can afterwards write out the words according to the proper spelling. In like manner, when some words are indistinctly heard, the few sounds that the ear may detect will often serve by the aid of the context to restore the lost words.

A Brief Overview

Writing Automated

Until the late 19th century, a quill or pen was the primary means of court reporting. John R. Gregg, creator of the most widely used pen-writing method of shorthand in the United States, eventually opened a school in Chicago. But in the late 1870s, automation was introduced in the form of Miles Bartholomew's first stenotype machine. The concept was simple: take advantage of a person's ability to type faster than he or she can write.

At about the same time, Alexander Graham Bell wanted a machine to be able to understand voices, and he worked on his photoautograph. That research led him to create his telephone. By the 1940s, use of the specialized typewriting machine had supplanted the pen, primarily due to the increased speed with which a court reporter could "take it down."

Indeed, Ward S. Ireland's first publicly available Stenotype machine enabled inexperienced operators to attain and even break speed championship records. Clearly seeing the inevitable, the national organization redefined the term "shorthand" to include typing the specialized word abbreviations on the new machine. Thus "machine shorthand" was born, and the machine, itself, would later be referred to as a "writer." This was perfectly in keeping with their founding fathers' edict, pronounced at the National Shorthand Reporters Association's first meeting in Chicago in 1899: "No stenographic creed is to be especially honored or recognized; the rituals of all systems are to have equal force and control."


The field wasn't giving up on Bell's high-tech vision. Also in the 1940s, Horace Webb, a pen-writing stenographer, imagined yet a faster way of taking down the record while working as a court reporter in Chicago. He inserted a small microphone first into a cigar box, which was connected to a standard recorder, and then into a coffee can filled with a speech-silencing "tortuous path" to dampen reverberating sound waves. The theory proved correct, as the next mask was remarkably quiet and made an adequate recording. The concept was again, simple: take advantage of a person's ability to speak faster than he or she can type - er, write.

The court reporter places a stenomask to his or her face, and by speaking, repeats the words spoken by persons in the courtroom into a recorder attached to the stenomask. To produce a transcript, the reporter simply plays back the recording in the usual method of transcription. Constant improvements yielded today's Stenomask and variants, which look similar to masks worn by fighter pilots.

W.P. Upham, the Godfather of the Steno Machine

Who do we, as the court reporter profession, have to thank? None other than W.P. Upham, the godfather of the Stenograph machine.


The following information was digitized by the Internet Archive in 2007, with funding from Microsoft Corporation.

A Brief History of the Art of Stenography, Proposed New System
Phonetic Short-hand
By William P. Upham, Salem, Massachusetts, Essex Institute, 1877.

Copyright 1876 (Currently NOT under copyright)


To Henry Wheatland, M.D., President of The Essex Institute. This volume is dedicated as a token of regard for his disinterested devotion to the advancement of knowledge.


Shorthand writing, though understood and practiced by comparatively few persons, has always been regarded as possessing a high value and importance, both as an aid to literary labor and as a means of preserving extemporary discourse. A brief account of the origin and worth of this art and of some of the principal methods of shorthand that have prevailed in former times may be not without interest as a matter of curious history and may also have some value as a guide in the study of ancient manuscripts in which shorthand writing occurs. Many of the principles now recognized as most necessary to render such a method of writing practically useful, were either laid down in the old systems of shorthand or have suggested by a comparative study of them.

The term "shorthand," in its general signification, denotes any abbreviated or contracted method of writing having for its object compactness or celerity, and consisting in the use of word-signs, abbreviations, or special characters more suitable for rapid writing than the ordinary letters. The usual writing is sometimes called long-hand to distinguish it from the shorter method. Among the various names applied to this art that which is now most generally used to denote shorthand writing of any kind is "stenography," from the Greek words for "contracted" and "writing."

The art of shorthand writing, in its alphabetic form, at least, comes down to us from a remote antiquity. It is said that the Greeks had, under the names of "quick writers" and "writers by signs," scribes who practiced the art of writing with the rapidity of speech. In this manner, the conversations of Socrates, now known as "Memorabilia," were preserved by Xenophon, his pupil. Although from such evidence it has been generally considered that the art of shorthand was communicated to the Greeks by Xenophon, if he were not the inventor of it, there is reason to doubt whether he used any characters different from the ordinary letters, as no traces of their use exist in his writings. Probably his system was one simply of abbreviations enabling him to make memoranda of what he heard, which he afterwards filled out from memory.

The highest and, at the same time, the most difficult end which this art of shorthand has in view is the ability to "follow speech" or to "report verbatim"; that is, to take down in writing the words of a speaker as rapidly as they are uttered.

Although but little is known as to the history of shorthand writing in ancient times, there is sufficient evidence to show a frequent use of it among the early Greeks and that it flourished most during the period of the highest civilization and fell into disuse with its decline.

Among other improvements in science and the arts which followed the conquest of Greece by the Romans, the method of rapid writing, which appears then to have been much employed by Greek writers, was introduced into Italy, and, about the time of the establishment of the Roman Empire, gave rise to a distinct profession. The scribes who practiced the art were called notarii, and the characters or signs which they used were called notoe, or "notes." (Please note that the Greek o and e blend together in notoe, creating some type of singular phonetic sound which I can't recreate here. The same is often true for the ae, as in "Caesar," with the ae being joined together at the neck.) The art of rapid writing was taught by masters, or special professors, and during the reign of Augustus, there existed in the empire as many as 300.

The early writers give us no definite description of this ancient system of shorthand, and our knowledge of its nature is derived only from a few manuscripts, written in what are called the notoe Tironianoe (there, again, is that pesky oe blended together -- twice), none of which probably are older than the fifth or sixth century. From what we can learn of it, the method appears to have consisted in the employment of a very great number of signs composed of characters and representing each a particular word in the Latin language. The most distinctive letter or syllable of a word was represented by a special character, and the rest of the word was more or less fully indicated by additional characters placed above, below, or at the side of the first character.

For whatever reason the system was first invented, or whether, more likely, it is owing to the subsequent additions that were made to the list of word-signs and to changes in the manner of its use from time to time is uncertain.

In the form in which it has been transmitted to us, it certainly seems very poorly adapted to the purpose of following speech, both from the complex form of many of its word-signs and from the almost incredible exertion of memory that must have been necessary in order to make of any rapid use of so great a number of arbitrary characters. It cannot be doubted, however, that a very rapid system of shorthand existed in the time of Cicero and during the first years of the Roman Empire.

Sallust has preserved in his history of Catiline a speech by Cato against Caesar in the Roman Senate, which Tiro is said to have taken down at its delivery by means of shorthand notes.

The following passages from the early Roman writers show the perfection to which this art had been carried and the admiration with which its successful use was regarded. Seneca, the Philosopher, said (in English), "What shall I say of the notes for words, by which, however rapidly a speech may be delivered, the hand follows the quickness of the tongue? These are the invention of the despised slaves." (NOTE: Much of the writing among the Romans was done by slaves, or freedmen, among whom were many persons of intelligence and learning, such as Tiro, the freedman and friend of Cicero.

Ausonius, a celebrated Roman poet of the Fourth Century, pays his tribute to shorthand as follows (English version, of course):

"Hasten, youth, skilled in the swift shorthand. Bring hither the two-leaved tablet on which are so many words by single point expressed, as a single sound is uttered. I unroll the well-filled books, and like a storm of dense hail, I rapidly read. Thou hearest all rightly, and yet thy page is not filled. Thy hand, deftly moved, flies over the waxen surface. Even now, while my speech is most prolix with roundabout circumlocution, thou hast fixed on the waxen tablets the thoughts of my breast while they are uttered. I would that my mind could have thought as swift as they skilful right hand. Thou anticipatest my speech. Who, I ask, who has betrayed me? Who has already told you of what I was thinking to say? What thefts in my inmost heart has your winded right hand committed? What is this new order of things that that should come to your ears which the tongue had not yet spoken? No learning has caused it, no other hand is so swift with the flying contractions. Nature has brought thee the skill and God the gift has bestowed, that what I would speak thou should know, and what I might wish, thou shoulds't wish."

To the same effect are the lines of Manilius, an early Roman poet, referring to the fortune of him who should be born under the sign Virgo (Astronomica, book 4). "And he shall be the fortunate writer to whom a letter is a word. By his notes he shall surpass the tongue and the quickness of speech. He shall take down long sentences by new contractions."

(end of W.P. Upham excerpt)

Speculation of Origin

It's impossible to say when humankind first became inspired to make a record of their surroundings for others. And yet, there is ample proof that ancient man was motivated to communicate, to find a way to record and preserve messages for those who came after. There are plenty of primitive cave drawings depicting animals being hunted with man-made weapons, passageways leading down into the tombs of an Egyptian pharaoh chronicling his reign in both cursive symbols and elaborately-painted scenes, and ancient Grecian urns whose painted panels tell stories about what life was like centuries ago.

Prehistoric man may have actually "borrowed" the idea of shorthand from nature itself by learning to read and understand the meaning of markings all around him, such as the footprints of large flesh-eating animals or the position of the stars and sun in the sky. Whatever their motivation, our prehistoric predecessors certainly possessed the intellect and ability to grasp the significance of both recording and interpreting symbols of communication for fellow homo sapiens.

When did shorthand originate? By its very name, one would think that it was created after longhand, for if longhand were sufficient, the need for shorthand would be nonexistent. The fact that shorthand is defined as:
1. method of rapid writing using simple strokes, abbreviations, or symbols that designate letters, words, or phrases (distinguished from longhand);
2. A simplified or makeshift manner of communication
tells us that at some point, the idea was born that the long process of writing needed to be shortened. Why?

One reason, of course, was the desire to capture language as it is spoken. Obviously, speech is very different from written composition. The spontaneity of the spoken word is more susceptible to human inflection, error, and perhaps a shared inspiration between the orator and listener, whereas writing requires more time and deliberation. Therefore, someone saw a need to capture the spoken word in order to preserve it. It was necessary, then, to create a technology of elision (the omission of one or more sounds, such as a vowel, a consonant, or a whole syllable, in a word or phrase, producing a result that is easier for the speaker to pronounce).

But could one make the case that longhand actually arose out of shorthand? Are not cave paintings, cuneiform, and hieroglyphics all forms of shorthand? Surely cave paintings are abstractions or condensed, abbreviated forms of expression. They are not verbatim transcripts of speeches but merely shortened versions of communication. So perhaps at one point it was decided that these short abstractions should be written out, lengthened, to represent an entire oration more realistically. Longhand, then, out of a desire for realism, would have arisen from shorthand.

The Ancients

The profession of court reporting is thousands of years old. As witnesses to history, shorthand writers recorded the events, public orations, and private journals that make up our understanding of Western civilization.

One of the earliest recorded instances of shorthand being used is a system developed by the Greek historian Xenophon to document the teachings of Socrates and to write the famed philosopher's memoirs in the fourth and third centuries B.C. By the 25th Dynasty, hieratic and then demotic scripts were used to take notes that later were transcribed into formal hieroglyphics. Greeks and Romans soon developed their own shorthand, examples of which have been found in Rome and at the Parthenon.

The earliest known indication of shorthand systems is from Ancient Greece, namely the Parthenon in which a stone from mid-4th century BC was found. The marble slab shows a writing system primarily based on vowels, using certain modifications to indicate consonants. Hellenistic tachygraphy is reported from the 2nd century BC onwards, though there are indications that it might be older. The oldest datable reference is a contract from Middle Egypt, stating that Oxyrhynchos gives the "semeiographer" Apollonios for two years to be taught shorthand writing.

Hellenistic tachygraphy consisted of word stem signs and word ending hsigns. Over time, many syllabic signs were developed.

Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome all ...