Pitman Shorthand: An Invention of Note

English language teacher Isaac Pitman
English language teacher Isaac Pitman

by Ray Setterfield


January 22, 1897Isaac Pitman died on this day, leaving behind the shorthand note-taking system named after him, which became the most widely used in the English-speaking world. It continues to flourish despite astonishing advances in technology which would have been expected to render Pitman Shorthand obsolete.

Pitman was born in 1813, the third of his parents’ 11 children. His father, Samuel, was the manager of a weaving mill. Isaac went to a grammar school but left at the age of 13 because of health problems. He suffered with speech difficulties and the crowded classrooms frequently caused him to have fainting fits.

He took a job as a clerk at a textile mill but refused to give up his education and studied at home. It wasn’t long before he enrolled at a teacher’s training college, paving the way for an 11-year stint as a teacher at local schools.

While teaching English, he became fascinated by spelling and felt it needed reform. This led to his creation of Pitman Shorthand, a system of rapid writing based on the sounds of words – the phonetic principle – rather than on conventional spelling. It was all explained in a book, Stenographic Sound Hand, published in 1837.

Until his death at the age of 84, he continued to improve the system through twelve editions. He also established a phonetic institute and a phonetic journal to publicise it.

Not content with all that, Pitman also printed standard works in shorthand, and his book Phonography (1840) was published in many editions. The system quickly became widely popular and commercially successful.

Pitman shorthand was introduced into the United States in 1852. Among the many languages to which it has been adapted are Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, German, French, Spanish, and Dutch.

In 1886 – eight years before he was knighted by Queen Victoria for his shorthand work – Pitman went into formal partnership with his sons Alfred and Ernest. Isaac Pitman and Sons was to become one of the world's leading educational publishers and training businesses.

Now trading as Pitman Training, it continues to thrive from its base at Wetherby in Yorkshire. In 2013 it was recognised as a Superbrand in the prestigious league table that charts the UK’s strongest brands. Surprisingly perhaps, this put Pitman alongside such giants as Apple, Google and British Airways.

The company offers 250 courses and qualifications across a range of sectors including office, secretarial, book-keeping, web design and marketing. Teaching methods include audio, books and software.

As well as training centres in London, New York, Melbourne, Johannesburg, Toronto and Tokyo, it has 57 of them in the UK, 14 in Ireland, and others in Spain, Palestine, Romania, Kuwait, Ireland, Nigeria, Cayman Island, Zimbabwe and India.

But in this age of rapidly developing technology is there a future for shorthand? One blogger recently wrote: “As recording technology and voice recognition become more reliable, shorthand will be needed less and less. Laws will be changed to recognise recordings.

“Some reporters still find it useful, but most now use a recorder. In the UK, reporters still need shorthand at 100 words a minute, but there is increasing pressure to drop the requirement.”

However, former London newspaper executive Graham Dudman wrote in 2015: “The armoury of tools used by reporters to create journalism is changing as never before. Periscope, Instagram, Twitter … the list goes on.

“But among the all-singing, all-dancing hi-tech digital tricks and toys there is one old-fashioned tool still standing head and shoulders above the rest: shorthand. It has been top dog for decades and should remain so for decades to come.

“In my book, a reporter isn’t the finished article until they’ve passed their NCTJ [National Council for the Training of Journalists] shorthand at 100 words a minute.

“Why? Because the ability to write down what somebody says at the same time they’re saying it, then read your note back instantly is essential to do the job properly. Shorthand is a brilliant skill no digital trickery can match.”

You can almost hear applause from the ghost of Isaac Pitman.

Published: January 6, 2020

Related Famous People

Articles on Events in January