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History of shorthand, Evolution of a timeless profession

Dominick M. Tursi (USA)

The second presentation is by Mr. Dominick M. Tursi, official court reporter and founder of The Gallery of Shorthand in the Alfonse M. D’Amato Federal Courthouse on Long Island, New York City, in the USA.

Mr. Dominick M. Tursi has worked in the state court system and currently works, among other things, in the United States federal court system.

In his opinion the preservation of thought began some 5000 years ago. Epoch I begins with the earliest form of written expression in what is now called Iraq in 3500 BC. The Sumerians came to realize that any important thought should be preserved. They therefore created a systematic way of writing and reading called “cuneiform”. In some 400 years they compiled a 2000 word and pictograph system of writing. About the same time, 3200 BC, the Egyptians came to a similar realization and decided that the existing hieroglyphics were far too complex. They devised the hieratic and demotic scripts as means to preserve important thought.

Before continuing with this story, Mr. Dominick Tursi explains how he came to found The Gallery of Shorthand. Someone from the department that runs the Federal Court building asked him to display his collection of steno machines. He immediately accepted and began to think about telling the story of shorthand and making people in this profession proud. The result of the hard work that followed is the The Gallery of Shorthand, prominently located at the entrance of the Federal Courthouse. It catches every visitor’s sight, court reporters, lawyers, witnesses, students, good guys and bad guys, especially as it is the only red space in an entirely white building. The intention is that the gallery has something for everyone. On hearing of his visit to Belgium, the Chief Judge of the Federal Court asked to share these words with the audience: “We are so pleased to host The Gallery of Shorthand in the Eastern District Central Islip Courthouse. The Gallery pays tribute to the important work of shorthand reporters without whom the judicial system could not function. Members of the judiciary, litigants, the press and the public all depend upon court reporters for a record of court proceedings. Access to an accurate and complete record is crucial for attorneys in preparing arguments for appeal and for their clients whose rights may be at stake. We are enormously grateful to our court reporters for assuring the accuracy of the proceedings.”

Mr. Dominick Tursi’s enthusiasm for showing the story of shorthand made a museum designer work on the design for free. Doing things for free is quite a feat in the USA. The Gallery finally opened in September 2010. What is the concept, the mission, the philosophy of the Gallery? Thomas Jefferson stated that if governmental deliberation is to be remembered, revived or acted upon, it first must be recorded. This means that discussions must be memorialized in impartial and accurate writing. This timeless truth led to the creation of written language in 3500 BC. It compelled Julius Caesar in 95 BC to order that deliberations of the Roman Senate be written. In 1873, reversing the prior practice of secretive deliberations, the United States Senate hired official reporters to transcribe their debate. The Congressional Record in the USA was started by a court reporter, Thomas Lloyd, who wrote tachygraphy shorthand.

The history of shorthand as told in the Gallery is told in ten epochs, i.e. important pivotal segments of time. The Gallery shows many artefacts, steno machines and books. The oldest book on shorthand in the Gallery dates from around 1600. Mr. Dominick M. Tursi explains that all artefacts were paid out of his own pocket.

Returning to the history of shorthand, Mr. Dominick M. Tursi stresses the importance of knowledge to make a good record. Most people outside the reporting profession think reporters just hear and write. The Sumerians already knew in 3500 BC that there is more to it. It took twelve years to train their official scribes, who later on rose to high positions in society. The scribes of Egypt developed, as stipulated earlier, quicker forms of writing than hieroglyphs. One of these scribes became the overseer of all royal scribes and physicians and dentists. Amenhotep, son of Hapu, was one of the most important scribes who endured several reigns. He was overseer of all projects of the Pharao and the construction of the temples at Luxor.

Epoch II starts in 206 BC in China. The Chinese had a different reason for inventing faster and faster ways of writing. They wanted to capture confessions after arrests as quickly as possible and needed fast ways of writing down what the accused was saying and sign it off. In 2007 Dominick M. Tursi with some of his colleagues visited Beijing to meet their counterparts and write about the Yawei Stenotype. After he had a go at the machine, the first thing the Chinese reporter did was sign off on the transcript. A clear throwback to the reason for the original invention of fast writing in China.

The third epoch in the Gallery is Roman shorthand. This epoch starts in 63 BC, when Cicero invented the first system of short writing as used by his slave Tiro, who essentially is Cicero’s reporter. Tiro wrote on wax tablets and read his shorthand in Latin to the transcribing scribes or transcribers who wrote the original speech on parchment. There are no remains of Tiro’s shorthand, which was improved and expanded over the course of many centuries. Why? They melted the wax after use and re-used it! A book on display in the Gallery, one of only four in the world, contains later iterations of Tironian shorthand. When Tiro started using shorthand to capture Cicero’s words in Senate, other senators became jealous. Responding to their need, Cicero and Tiro trained the slaves of these senators. So the first corps of court reporters was born.

Epoch IV starts in 500 AD with the abolition of shorthand, as during the Middle Ages it was considered cryptography, diabolical, black magic and witchcraft. Emperor Justinian forbade its use in 534 AD, although shorthand skills of monks were both permitted and encouraged. Interest renewed around 1180 AD when Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, encouraged research into Tironian shorthand.

Epoch V starts in 1588, and is known as “The vital 250 years”. Timothy Bright invented the first pivotal system, which became the most extensively used for the ensuing 60 years. It was motivated by the need to record sermons and parliamentary debates. One of the early masters of shorthand was Samuel Taylor. He and others invented systems called “polygraphy”, “swift writing” and The writing schoolmaster.

The revolutionary systems of shorthand, based on phonetics, came up in Epoch VI. In 1837, a 24 year old English teacher by the name of Isaac Pitman, who studied and used the system of Samuel Taylor, publishes Stenographic Sound-Hand. This system, later renamed to Phonography, Writing by Sound or simply Pitman Shorthand, is the most revolutionary in the history of shorthand. Being an excellent businessman, Pitman sold inexpensive weekly and monthly magazines that enabled people who could not afford school to start learning shorthand. In 1888, John Robert Gregg launches his system as Light-Line Phonography. Because of the stranglehold of Pitman on the English market he decided to come to New York. As it turned out, Ben Pitman, Isaacs younger brother, had been there first with Pitman Shorthand. Ultimately John Gregg went to the Midwest. Eventually his system became the most used system throughout the United States, because it was easier to write.

Epoch VII is about the proliferation of shorthand in Europe. England, Germany, Italy and France were predominant in developing shorthand systems.

Epoch VIII looks at the proliferation of shorthand in America. In those days, around 1900 or so, in the USA shorthand development stopped, thus no new systems emerged other than the well-intended but subpar system by John Radcliff in 1650. All other systems used were adaptations of Pitman’s system. In the opinion of John Gregg, who brought his system to America in 1893, Gregg Shorthand wasn’t meant for the verbatim high speed writer but for the lower speed stenographic writers in business’s and offices. Only when a speed writer named Frederick Gurtler reached 260-280 words per minute, Gregg was convinced of his own system. In the 1910s, speed writers using Pitman or Gregg won speed contests with 280 words per minute and 99% accuracy. What this learns, is that it isn’t the system but the person who is the most important.

Epoch IX is the epoch of mechanized shorthand. There is very little known about the men who made the early attempts to invent shorthand machines and keyboards. In France Gonod attempted in 1827 to develop mechanized shorthand. In Germany Baron Karl de Drais de Sauerbrun (1829) and in Italy Celestino Galli (1830) also constructed prototypes. Interestingly, already in 1884 a man called Birolin claims to be able to improve the Bartholomew Stenograph by attaching a transmitter to it, “in the electrical combination therewith of a typograph or a typewriter at any convenient distance therefrom which when acting as a receiver will serve to convert the conventional signs into the ordinary letters of the language”. Does this mean real-time transcription in 1884?

Ms. Rian Schwarz-van Poppel invites the audience to a short break, including coffee and something to eat.

Mr. Dominick Tursi resumes his presentation to expand on the evolution of shorthand machines in Epoch IX. The Ireland Stenotype from 1911 forever defined the mainstream keyboard and remains the English-language industry standard. It used a two-row, tripartite key arrangement of initial consonants, final consonants and middle vowels to create the greatest output with the fewest strokes. Its inventor, Ward Stone Ireland, was a genius but borrowed a lot of technique from the Bartholomew Stenograph (1879) and the Anderson Shorthand Typewriter (1886). He was sued by Anderson, who won the lawsuit. By the time he could collect, Ireland was out of business anyway. Ireland came back in 1917 with the National Shorthand Machine. It uses a different arrangement of consonants and added subordinate keys. Also in 1917, The Stenotype Company improved Ireland’s mechanism and called it Master Model Three, followed in 1927 by Master Model Four. This is a pivotal model, used in the world-famous Hauptmann/Lindbergh trial in the thirties. It catapulted machine shorthand into mainstream reporting. In 1930 the Smith Stenotype came in use, designed by Howard B. Smith and Walter Heironimus. In 1939 the Palantype was developed, patented by an English woman called Fairbanks, based on the design of the French Grandjean (1908). Also in 1939, The Reporter came along, invented by a lawyer, Mr. Thomas Bilyeu, with three rows of consonants and five vowel keys. His motto was: put more keys on and people learn faster! Another development in 1939 is the Stenograph. Milton H. Wright and his son Robert, working for The Stenotype Company, started Stenographic Machines and improved upon the Master models with a light-weight magnesium shell and a dependable clutch mechanism, plus silent operation and an endless-loop self-inking ribbon. The Stenotype Company responded by hiring a French designer to produce a textolite model. Problem was that the plastic casing cracked as a result of rapid temperature changes. In 1940, the problem was solved with a metal housing.

In 1943, Wendell V. Kirkpatrick invented the Brevitype, a very small, light-weight and attractive machine, made to print standard English letters. In the forties, Russia developed something called the CTM-machine. In 1957 the Düsseldorf parliamentary reporter Heinrich Hermann Bruckschen invented the Simla, which used a tripartite keyboard. This was followed in 1963 by the Princess-Steno. In 1963, the Stenograph Square Design came along. In the time of the Cold War, Russian communications were being intercepted by the USA with the help of IBM. The need became apparent to accurately log these data. In reaction to a request made by the CIA, Robert Wright of Stenographic Machines placed organ-type switches in a steno machine to sense key strokes, and used a cable to transmit them to a tape recorder. Thus the first computerized machine was invented, the so-called DataWriter. In 1971, Stenographic Machines brought the Curved Design on the market.

In 1977, BaronData Systems introduced the StenoConverter, their first try at computer transcription. In 1982 the XScribe Corporation followed with the StenoRam, with a built-in modem to transmit data to a computer. In 1987 the SmartWriter came along, the first machine to capture notes on a floppy disk. In 1988 Jerry Lefler introduced the Digitext-ST, the first realtime writer. Because it used a restricted system with little room for flexibility, it never took off in a major way. It was followed by AccuWriter (1989), Impact Writer (1994) and Foni’ks Writer (1998).

In 1991, a new type of machine was introduced: keyboard input machines. These are paperless, don’t use an on-board display screen and thus rely on an external computer for readback. Stenograph introduced the first of these in 1991 and called it the ProModel, followed by Gemini (Infinity) in 1994 and the Tréal. These were followed by the Stenture in 1992. China produced its first shorthand machine in 1994, the Yawei. During his 2007 visit to Beijing, Mr. Dominick Tursi brought one of his Yawei machines as a present to the inventor himself, Mr. Tang Yawei. He was rewarded by Mr. Tang Yawei with one of the latest models of the Yawei Stenotype.

Last but not least, in 2003, Stenograph came along with the Mira, a brilliant machine using digitouch, as invented by Johnny Jackson. The now common iPad functions are based upon his patented invention.

Mr. Dominick Tursi concludes his presentation with some exciting news. In the upcoming NCRA Convention in Nashville an attempt will be made by six writers to write 400 words per minute during one minute. This requires enormous finger speeds and concentration.

Ms. Rian Schwarz-van Poppel thanks Mr. Dominick M. Tursi for the liveliest presentation in IPRS history.

The presentation notes for this presentation are available on our Downloads page.

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