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Technologies of Writing in the Age of Print
Manuals of a New Technology

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Manuals of a New Technology: Shorthand in Early Modern England

Mid-seventeenth-century visitors to England were surprised by the new art of shorthand. John Willis’s Art of Stenographie (1602) was the first of many printed manuals teaching this innovative method of writing. Popular titles were reprinted many times while new  systems of shorthand continuously emerged to compete with them. At a time when Samuel Pepys was building a famous shorthand collection, and the London schoolmaster Elisha Coles was beginning a  comparative anaylsis of fourteen of some thirty systems of shorthand, new systems were only starting to emerge in other languages. They were usually adapted from English ones.


Learners complained of the prodigious demands that early modern shorthand made on their memories. In addition to mastering a new alphabet and the concept of "vowel places," students had to learn dozens of special symbols for consonantal blends and for common prefixes and suffixes ("prepositions" and "terminations"). They might also learn special symbols for commonly used words and phrases. With "symbolicals" (characters that suggested their meaning through visual puns), stenography veered off into an amusement (see the Jeremiah Rich example).

Willis. The art of stenographie. London, 1602.

(above) The art of stenographie  is the direct ancestor of almost all of the manuals that followed it. Willis correctly described it as "the first book of Spelling Characterie [i.e., alphabet-based shorthand] that ever was set forth." Some of his forms for individual letters remained in use for a long time. Even more importantly, he devised a system of representing intermediate vowels through the placement of the subsequent consonant upon or near the initial consonant.


(top right and middle) Jeremiah Rich's shorthand manual was updated in 1694 by Nathaniell Stringer. Stringer was one of several of Rich’s pupils who sought to perpetuate Rich’s enormously popular system after his death. Since by the late seventeenth century the general principles of alphabetic shorthand were widely understood, it was not uncommon to produce entirely engraved condensations such as this one.


(right, middle) Almost all systems were designed to appeal to sermon note-takers. Thomas Shelton's system includes formulaic phrases found in most sermons.


(bottom right) Metcalfe’s system was similar to Thomas Shelton’s and Jeremiah Rich’s. Unlike them, however, he boldly claimed that it could be learned without a teacher. It was widely used and apparently was popular in colonial Massachusetts, where an early version was used by the Reverend Samuel Parris to take depositions in the Salem witch trials. Remarkably, an edition of Metcalfe published in 1721 claimed to be the fifty-fifth edition.


Next »
Rich. Rich redivivus or ... short-hand improved. London, 1694.

Rich. Rich redivivus or ... short-hand improved. London, 1694.

Thomas Shelton. Zeiglographia. London, 1654

Theophilus Metcalfe. Short-writing. London, 1660

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