Write this down, Jeeves. Stop. All right, ready?
July 29, 2012 12:43 PM   Subscribe

How fast could people dictate before typewriters? You see in movies or read in books about valets or secretaries taking dictation. Were they using a shorthand system? Or was it longhand, but with abbreviations and such? Can I find examples of such drafts/notes?
posted by Busoni to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
My mother was trained as a secretary in the fifties in England; she can still transcribe fast talkers into accurate shorthand in real time with few errors. Common words are replaced by a simple scribble, I think the non-common words are broken down into symbols representing phonemes.
posted by saucysault at 12:51 PM on July 29, 2012

Shorthand was still taught in high schools well into the 70s, possibly into the 80s.
posted by Ardiril at 12:51 PM on July 29, 2012

Shorthand. And from that:
Some shorthand systems attempted to ease learning by using characters from the Latin alphabet. Such non-stenographic systems have often been described as alphabetic, and purists might claim that such systems are not 'true' shorthand. However, these alphabetic systems do have value for students who cannot dedicate the years necessary to master a stenographic shorthand. Alphabetic shorthands cannot be written at the speeds theoretically possible with symbol systems—200 words per minute or more—but require only a fraction of the time to acquire a useful speed of between 60 and 100 words per minute.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 12:52 PM on July 29, 2012

People could take shorthand faster than people could type, at least on a regular typewriter [and not a court reporter one which is its own type of shorthand). The US standard since the late 1800s was Gregg Shorthand and the wikipedia page has some basic examples. This book talks about how to teach people to use it. There's also Pittman which I think is cooler looking (more). Neither of these are technically before typing, Taylor shorthand was what people were using back in the 1780s. You can type any of these into Google images and see lots of neat examples.
posted by jessamyn at 12:52 PM on July 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

I took shorthand dictation in a PA job I had about five years ago. I'd trained and worked as a journalist so had Teeline shorthand already (to about 100 wpm, or at least it was when I learned it 12 years ago. I don't know if it's got faster or slower since then; I'd guess about the same) and my boss was dyslexic so preferred to dictate, then I'd write up and send his emails in good English. Our speed was probably slower than normal conversation, but then he needed thinking time as much as I needed writing time, so it worked pretty smoothly.
posted by penguin pie at 1:02 PM on July 29, 2012

So am I to understand that those people (valets, secretaries, etc.) would have been using something like Gregg or Pitman, and not anything based on the Latin alphabet?

I just remembered reading an article somewhere about Mad Men, how journalists wouldn't have been using Gregg by that time.

And this is going way back, but in Prince Caspian, when Doctor Cornelius is taking dictation (either from Peter or Prince Caspian, I forget which), I wondered what the product was supposed to look like. This being just a general example of the sort of thing I was trying to picture.
posted by Busoni at 1:15 PM on July 29, 2012

My grandmother was in her 30s in the 1950s. She took dictation using Gregg shorthand, so I don't think an article about this not being available during the Mad Men timeframe is correct. My mother, who was in high school in the early 1960s, also learned Gregg shorthand in high school. My mother and grandmother could both do this much faster than typing, and they both typed very fast. Shorthand had just been dropped from high school when I entered, which was in the late 1980s.

Not sure about Prince Caspian, but the Narnia timeline (year 1 - year 2555) runs from our time 1900 AD - 1949 AD, with Prince Caspian born in Narnian time 2290 -- about 1941 AD. So, probably Gregg but who knows because this is Narnia!
posted by Houstonian at 1:50 PM on July 29, 2012

Shorthand is definitely faster than typing. My school board still employs secretaries who can take shorthand, because the entire meeting has to be transcribed. It is back-up audio recorded, but the secretary takes notes in real time of everyone talking, often talking over each other, for six hours at a time. Our last secretary used Pitman (I asked because I'd never seen someone using shorthand before!); I'm not sure which system our current secretary uses. At least as fast as court transcription (on the special typewriter); often faster. We're asked to stop and repeat ourselves less often by shorthand-takers than by court transcriptionists. (Both are simultaneously audio recorded.) The shorthand-secretaries' notes look basically exactly what Jessamyn linked to. I like to look over their shoulders and guess which symbols mean what. Our secretaries also both developed idiosyncratic symbols for commonly-used words that are unique to our setting, like a symbol for particular speakers who speak often, or educational jargon. (I don't know if that's typical, but it seems sensible.)

There's some skill to dictating (Cornelius takes it from Peter, who is remembering how to do the formal bits as he goes), and when you're dictating a formal document you go a bit slower. It's somewhat different to take dictation than to straight-up transcribe people talking. My husband worked at a law firm where the partners were very old-fashioned and they insisted you could only be productive if you dictated; GIVING dictation is actually a skill you have to learn as well as TAKING dictation. Anyway, Cornelius wouldn't have taken the dictation directly on the final copy; he would have rewritten it later in the fancy version.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:51 PM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

(Meaning, I don't see why that technique couldn't have been filtered to Narnia, but it is fiction.)
posted by Houstonian at 1:54 PM on July 29, 2012

it looks like a very messy, strongly diagonal handwriting where MOST words are only 2-3 'letters' (i would guess that each 'letter' represents a phoneme... the / represents either 'a' or 'and' or 'the' and also there are a bunch of more diagonal markings (faster to make?)...thus the general slashiness (a relative's secretary did shorthand...it looks cool) ...also, yes, they were still teaching it in the 80's...but not as much as typing, which was required...
posted by sexyrobot at 2:04 PM on July 29, 2012

There was also recorders such as the Dictaphone. The 'boss' would record his message, the secretary would play it back using earphones and type it.
posted by Cranberry at 2:12 PM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am ancient, and have done all sorts of ancient technology office administration tasks, including (but not limited to) both Gregg and Pitman shorthand. Both were specifically designed to be useful at normal conversational speeds, and both worked.

I have also done transcriptions from recordings as Cranberry describes, using a foot pedal to control the playback.
posted by trip and a half at 2:39 PM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

So am I to understand that those people (valets, secretaries, etc.) would have been using something like Gregg or Pitman, and not anything based on the Latin alphabet?

Correct. A fairly standard skillset for a secretarial vacancy even in my lifetime would have been something like "Typing 80 WPM, shorthand 80 WPM, filing, telephone reception, Telex experience preferred."

You would take the dictation in shorthand as your boss spoke ("Take a letter, Miss Jones") or transcribe it from a Dicaphone tape, and type it out in the proper format.

Please don't ask what a Telex is.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:42 PM on July 29, 2012

I had the option of taking Gregg shorthand in high school and I graduated in 1980. I did learn to type on a manual typewriter. Also this was right before Liquid Paper so I know how to erase enough to get rid of the letter, but no leave a hole in the paper.

As for Telex, can you say 300 baud? Hee!

I remember when I was the only one who knew what a fax was and how to use it. Love that thermographic paper. In Arizona, you couldn't store a fax in your car, you'd come back and it would be black.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:52 PM on July 29, 2012

Cicero's slave Tiro is sometimes credited with inventing a form of shorthand. The Wikipedia article on it is pretty good and includes some examples.
posted by StephenF at 3:08 PM on July 29, 2012

I don't think she uses it anymore, but my mum could type and take shorthand at lightning like speeds. Extra points: she could read Telex TAPE, which was like the most awesome sorcery when I was a kid.
posted by woolly pageturner at 3:19 PM on July 29, 2012

So I guess people are telling me that Jeeves would have used Teeline or some similar shorthand system. Thanks everyone, especially the old-timers ;D
posted by Busoni at 3:21 PM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Learned Gregg & Speedwrite in the 1990s. Gregg books were printed in the 70's (I had a weird fascination with seeing how old our books were; geometry books were from 1953.
posted by tilde at 4:08 PM on July 29, 2012

If you want arcane shorthand history, this hour-long video includes Bishop Michael Smith sharing the story of 40 years ago when he was a wee priest assigned to take shorthand in Latin at Vatican II. Now that's a rare skill.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:38 PM on July 29, 2012

My mother was a secretary for most of her adult life - she went to 'business school' in the mid-1930's, and told me that was when she learned shorthand (don't know if it was Gregg or not). I remember she told me that anyone who had used shorthand for years would not be able to read anyone else's shorthand. For some reason, she and good friend (who worked in the same office for years) could read each others shorthand.
I remember stories from her about a couple of particularly well-educated bosses she had, they would dictate every comma, semi-colon, m-dash, and period - and new paragraphs.

In the early 60's she had a Dictaphone (actually, probably an Audograph), where she would type dictation from these weird little green records (she did some private secretarial work in our basement, as a second, part-time job), using a one-ear headphone.

When she typed on an electric typewriter, it was like hearing a machine gun in the next room.
posted by dbmcd at 6:13 PM on July 29, 2012

"I remember stories from her about a couple of particularly well-educated bosses she had, they would dictate every comma, semi-colon, m-dash, and period - and new paragraphs."

Absolutely -- listening to my husband dictate it went like:

"... after which the plaintiffs returned the teapot to George Smithe S-M-I-T-H-E comma and Smithe destroyed the pot comma creating twenty-four, two four, shards period. New paragraph. Smithe then hid the shards under a flowerpot open parenthesis which he had purchased at GardenMaster one word capital G-a-r-d-e-n capital M-a-s-t-e-r on April tenth two thousand eleven close parenthesis and proceeded to the local flophouse comma Betty's Haven of Hookers period ..."

All this was done in a very evenly-paced, monotone style with very clear diction, rewinding the "dictaphone" (digital recorder) if one spoke unclearly. Pausing it whenever one stopped to think. It sounded similar with a secretary live but there was more back and forth.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:47 PM on July 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

I work in journalism, and I still have a coworker who transcribes interviews in shorthand, rather than recording them. I don't remember what system she uses, but yeah, she learned it in school.
posted by limeonaire at 9:11 PM on July 29, 2012

I learned Speedwriting in high school (1991). Slower than symbolic systems, much faster than longhand and allows for the use of a keyboard because the letters are all standard. I still use a number of the conventions I learned when I take notes.
posted by xyzzy at 10:05 PM on July 29, 2012

Using and transcribing (Teeline) shorthand rather than recording is still ubiquitous in UK newspaper journalism, btw. And yeah, it becomes harder to understand other people's shorthand the longer you've both used it. Unlike handwriting, nobody else needs to be able to understand it but you (unless you end up in court, I guess) so it evolves.
posted by penguin pie at 1:00 AM on July 30, 2012

I learnt shorthand along with typing in school, a unit of each. This was 1990. I still credit typing as one of the most valuable skills I was ever taught there. As a writer, I use it every day. Shorthand I used for a little while to take notes in high school, then I had no use for it as my design degree at university was entirely practical - no note taking required. Now I can't remember any of it, sadly.
posted by Jubey at 2:16 AM on July 30, 2012

One thing to keep in mind about shorthand is that initially there were a lot of competing systems, but that one of the primary reasons for Gregg's increasing dominance was the rise of cheap ballpoint pens. Unlike the fountain pens in wide use before, ballpoints made it hard to vary the width of a line in writing. Gregg happened to be one of the few shorthand systems that made no use of varying line widths. Notice that Teeline (which doesn't use stroke width) was created by a teacher of Pitman (which does) after 1960.

Presumably this would affect the writing speed of anyone learning shorthand today who is unused to intentionally varying stroke width.
posted by 23 at 2:36 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

For all you could ever want to know about Gregg shorthand, I recommend this page. (I'm currently self-learning the Anniversary manual from it, but it's slow going.) The links in the top left give you some actual notes taken in Gregg. It's possible that the article you are referring to had some particular flavor of Gregg in mind - it was definitely around by the time of Mad Men, but it has gone through several permutations. So for instance, Simplifed Gregg might have been used in the Mad Men office, or possibly they could have been using Diamond Jubilee, but Series 90 hadn't been released yet.
posted by solotoro at 3:34 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

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