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Shorthand Deathmatch – Pitman v. Gregg

For a while, Pitman shorthand was the most widely used system of shorthand in the English-speaking world. It was used throughout the British Empire, which included Australia, India, Canada, and large chunks of Africa.

In the United States, various authors were publishing their own versions of Pitman’s system, under a wide range of names. To stop this shorthand piracy, and cash in on the US market, Isaac’s brother Benn emigrated to the United States, and taught the system there. The Pitmans made a good living from selling their system, both as correspondence courses, and also as textbooks. Isaac Pitman produced new editions regularly, incorporating new modifications to make his shorthand system faster.

But in 1859, Isaac Pitman made a basic change to his system. The dot vowels had previously been I, E, A, from top to bottom. Pitman decided that the system would be more “natural” if the order were reversed, so, in the tenth edition of his book, he changed it to A, E, I.

Shorthand writers and teachers were livid. They’d spent years learning to write shorthand one way, and now, if they wanted to communicate with others, or read the official books and magazines, they had to relearn one of the most basic elements.

In England, the response from stenographers was, “OK, but this is the last big change we’ll allow.” American writers were less accommodating. Some adopted the new system, but many insisted on keeping things as they were. Isaac’s brother Benn listened to his customers, and produced separate “Benn Pitman” shorthand for America, keeping the old vowel system.

In the meantime, competing “Pitmanic” systems took advantage of the confusion, and started selling their own minor variations, making grand claims for the superior “scientific principles” they used. By the 1880s, American students might learn Benn Pitman, Isaac Pitman, Munson’s Phonography, Graham’s Phonograhy, Lindsley’s Takigrafy. American shorthand was a disorganized mess.

Around 1893, an Irishman named John Robert Gregg emigrated to the United States, where he published a totally new shorthand system. Gregg Shorthand was presented as being much easier to learn than Pitman, and faster to use. And there was only one Gregg system, not dozens. Gregg was the Apple Macintosh of the 19th century shorthand world. (Well, there had to be one.)

Gregg Shorthand has a number of appealing features. More important, it has many more features that sound appealing to the consumer. Like Pitman, Gregg is phonetic. Where Pitman is based on geometrical shapes, Gregg is based on the slope of typical handwriting. Where Pitman has separate vowels and consonants, Gregg flows vowels and consonants together, so the writer doesn’t have to lift the pen in mid-word. And while Pitman depends on thick and thin lines, Gregg is written with the same light stroke. In fact, the official name for Gregg’s system was “Light Line Phonography”.

Gregg Shorthand was a huge success. It arrived in America at the right time, and it was well marketed, as being easy to learn, with fewer rules than Pitman, and no exceptions to those rules. It was supposed to be more natural to write, and every bit as fast as Pitman.

In fact, the differences between the two systems are not as significant as they sound. Gregg doesn’t use light and heavy lines – instead, it uses various lengths of line, which can be just as difficult to distinguish. Vowels in Gregg are drawn as various loops. There are only so many loops you can draw at high speed, and Gregg suffers from a shortage of vowel sounds. Although Pitman vowels are drawn separately, generally as dots and dashes, this is actually one of the advantages of the system, because it means that words can be written quickly without vowels, and the vowels added later if it’s necessary to make the meaning clear. And while, Gregg may not have as many rules as Pitman, it has its own quirky ways of abbreviating long words, which writers must learn case by case.

But the big issue was speed. After all, that’s what shorthand is all about. The fastest system should be the best. Every shorthand publisher of the day made outrageous claims about the maximum speeds attainable with their systems, and produced expert writers who could demonstrate impressive feats of speed-writing.

In 1909, the American National Shorthand Reporters Association launched an annual speed competition. All the contestants in that first competition used Pitman or Pitman-based systems. The readings they had to transcribe, taken from court proceedings, were extremely fast, ranging from 200 to 280 words per minute. But in 1911, one of the entrants was Charles Swem, who used the Gregg system, and proved that it could match Pitman for speed. The Gregg Publishing Company used Swem on its advertisements, and in a few years, Gregg became, and remained, the most popular shorthand system in the US, while the rest of the English-speaking world used Isaac Pitman’s system.

So, was Gregg the winner of the shorthand deathmatch? No. The real winner emerged in 1914, when a group of teenage competitors entered the competition, sponsored by the Universal Stenotype Company, using their newfangled stenotype machine. These upstart kids were able to match the speed of the most experienced and fastest court reporters in America. An expert Pitman writer won the 1914 competition, but only just. Contest organizers were so alarmed by the development that they put an end to the competition for five years. When it returned in 1919, machine stenographers were not allowed to enter. It didn’t matter. The point had been made, and soon stenotypists were replacing shorthand writers in courtrooms across America.

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