English phonographer, born at Trowbridge, Wiltshire, on the 4th of January 1813, and educated at the local grammar school. He started in life as a clerk in a cloth factory, but in 1831 he was sent to the Normal College of the British and Foreign School Society in London. Between 1832 and 1839 he held masterships at Barton-on-Humber and Wotton-under-Edge, but he was dismissed by the authorities when he became a Swedenborgian, and from 1839 to 1843 he conducted a private school of his own at Bath. In 1829 he took up Samuel Taylor‘s system of shorthand, and from that time he became an enthusiast in developing the art of phonography. In 1837 he drew up a manual of Taylor’s system and offered it to Samuel Bagster (1771-1852). The publisher did not accept the work, but suggested that Pitman should invent a new system of his own. The result was his Stenographic Sound-hand (1837). Bagster’s friendship and active help had been secured by Pitman’s undertaking to verify the half-million references in the Comprehensive Bible, and he published the inventor’s books at a cheap rate, thus helping to bring the system within the reach of all. Pitman devoted himself to perfecting phonography and propagating its use, and established at Bath a Phonetic Institute and a Phonetic Journal for this purpose; he printed in shorthand a number of standard works, and his book with the title Phonography (1840) went through many editions. He was an enthusiastic spelling reformer, and adopted a phonetic system which he tried to bring into general use. Pitman was twice married, his first wife dying in 1857, and his second, whom he married in 1861, surviving him. In 1894 he was knighted, and on the 22nd of January 1897 he died at Bath. Sir Isaac Pitman popularized shorthand at a time when the advance of the newspaper press and modern business methods were making it a matter of great commercial importance. His system adapted itself readily to the needs of journalism, and its use revolutionized the work of reporting. He was a non-smoker, a vegetarian, and advocated temperance principles.
But of course what he is really know for his simply “Pitman’s Shorthand that has roots as far back as the 1800’s and is even still in existence today!
Before he created his system, Pitman had used Samuel Taylor’s system for seven years, but saw its weaknesses. Taylor’s symbols had greater similarity to the older Byrom system, and were too bulk and impractical to use.
Pitman first presented his shorthand system in 1837 as Stenographic Sound-hand. Like most systems of shorthand, it was a phonetic system based on phonetic and not orthographic principles. The symbols did not represent letters, but rather sounds, and words were, for the most part, written as they were spoken. There were twenty-four consonants that could be represented in Pitman’s shorthand, twelve vowels, and four diphthongs. The consonants were indicated by strokes, the vowels by interposed dots.
Pitman used similar-looking symbols for phonetically related sounds. He was the first to use thickness of a stroke to indicate voicing (voiced consonants such as /b/ and /d/ were written with heavier lines than unvoiced ones such as /p/ and /t/), and consonants with similar place of articulation were orientated in similar directions, with straight lines for plosives and arcs for fricatives.
Thus, a characteristic feature of Pitman shorthand was that voiceless and voiced sounds (such as /p/ and /b/) were represented by strokes that differed only in thickness (the thick stroke representing the voiced consonant). Doing this required a writing instrument which was responsive to the user’s drawing pressure: specialist fountain pens, with fine, flexible nibs, were originally used, but pencils later became more common.
Another distinguishing feature was that there was more than one way of indicating vowels. The main vowel of a word or phrase was indicated by the position of the stroke with respect to the lines of the notebook. For example, a small circle drawn above the line translated to as/has and the same circle drawn on the line translated to is/his. However, there was a more straightforward way of indicating vowels, which was to use dots or small dashes drawn close to the stroke of the preceding consonant. The type of vowel was dependent on the relative position of the dot or dash to the stroke (beginning, middle, or end).
Another feature of Pitman’s shorthand allowed most vowels to be omitted in order to speed up the process of writing. As mentioned above, each vowel was written next to the consonant stroke at the beginning, middle or end of the stroke. Pitman’s shorthand was designed to be written on lined paper and when a word’s first vowel is a “first position” vowel (at the beginning of the stroke), the whole shorthand outline for the word was written above the paper’s ruled line. When it was a second position vowel, the outline was written on the line. When it was a third position vowel it was written through the line. In this way, the position of the outline indicated that the first vowel could only be one of four possibilities. In most cases, this meant that the first and often all the other vowels could be omitted entirely.
There are at least three “dialects” of Pitman’s shorthand: the original Pitman’s, Pitman’s New Era, and Pitman’s 2000. The later versions dropped certain symbols and introduced other simplifications to earlier versions. For example, strokes “rer” (heavy curved downstroke) and “kway,” (hooked horizontal straight stroke) are present in Pitman’s New Era, but not in Pitman’s 2000.
Pitman created and popularized his shorthand system at a time when the newspaper industry was expanding greatly. His system was adapted to the needs of journalism, and it greatly simplified the work of reporters.
Pitman’s brother Benn settled in Cincinnati, Ohio in the United States, and introduced Pitman’s system there. He used it in the 1865–1867 trial of the conspirators behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. In Australia the system was introduced by another Pitman brother, Jacob.
At one time, the Pitman system was the most commonly used shorthand system in the entire English-speaking world. It had been adapted to at least 30 languages, including French, Spanish, Welsh, Afrikaans, Malay, and Hindu. Part of its popularity was due to the fact that it was the first subject taught by correspondence course. Today in many regions (especially the U.S.), it has been superseded by Gregg Shorthand, developed by John Robert Gregg.
Pitman’s grandson, James Pitman (1901-1985) also joined the family business founded by his grandfather, and was responsible for developing the Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA), a phonetically augmented alphabet designed to minimize the discrepancies between spelling and pronunciation which can cause problems in the early development of reading skills.
The modern face of Isaac Pitman today http://isaacpitman.org/
- 1837. Pitman, Isaac. Stenographic sound-hand. London: Samuel Bagster.
- 1840. Pitman, Isaac. Phonography, or, writing by sound: a natural method of writing all languages by one alphabet, composed of signs that represent the sounds of the human voice: adapted also to the English language as a complete system of short hand, briefer than any other system, and by which a speaker can be followed verbatim, without the use of arbitrary marks. London: Samuel Bagster and Sons.
- 1845. Pitman, Isaac. A manual of phonography, or, Writing by sound a natural method of writing by signs that represent the sounds of language, and adapted to the English language as a complete system of phonetic short hand. London: S. Bagster and Sons.
- 1849. Pitman, Isaac. Exercises in phonography; designed to conduct the pupil to a practical acquaintance with the art. London: F. Pitman.
- 1860. Pitman, Isaac. The phonographic reader: a series of lessons in phonetic shorthand. London: F. Pitman.
- 1897. Pitman, Isaac. Key to exercises in the “Phonographic reporter” or part II. of Pitman’s shorthand instructor. London: I. Pitman & Sons
- 2003. Pitman, Isaac. Course in Isaac Pitman shorthand. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 0766161692
- Baker, Alfred. 1908. The life of Sir Isaac Pitman (inventor of phonography). London: I. Pitman & Sons.
- Pitman, Benn. 1902. Sir Isaac Pitman, his life and labors. Cincinnati, OH: Press of C.J. Krehbial & Co.
All Links Received December 11, 2007.
- Pitman Collection At University of Bath Archives.
- Sir Isaac Pitman Biography at NNDB.
- Sir Isaac Pitman In Cotswold Edge.
- Sir Isaac Pitman In Encyclopædia Britannica.
- Writing samples of Pitman Shorthand Some samples in Pitman Shorthand.
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