Historically, shorthand or “short writing” dates back to the ancient Egyptians and many forms have developed over the centuries. It is basically a system that, depending upon the language and culture, uses phonetics and symbols or abbreviations for words and common phrases, which can allow a well-trained person to write as quickly as people speak. At one time, shorthand was considered an essential portion of secretarial training and police work, as well as being useful for journalists and still serves as the basis for courtroom stenographers. While the primary use of shorthand has been to record oral dictation or discourse, some systems are used for compact expression. For example, healthcare professionals may use shorthand notes in medical charts and correspondence. Shorthand notes are typically temporary, intended either for immediate use or for later typing, data entry, or (historically) transcription to longhand. In the west, there were a number of shorthand systems but Sir Isaac Pitman’s system, published in 1837 became the system used by English speaking countries using phonetics rather than letters to describe an utterance. Still popular in the UK, the Pitman technique is rather complicated using the thickness and length of strokes as well as symbols such as dots, lines and dashes and a system of abbreviations. Enter the shorthanded giant: John Robert Gregg.
John Robert Gregg
John Robert Gregg was born in a small town in Ireland on June 17, 1867 as the youngest of five children born to Robert and Margaret Gregg. The Greggs were Presbyterians and strict disciplinarians with other successful children. Gregg’s father, a worker for the railroad, had an inventive, inquiring mind, and great things were expected of young John Robert. Unfortunately, on his second day at school, his teacher grew so angry at his whispering with a school-mate that he “crashed the children’s heads together so violently that he severely damaged John’s hearing (no available discussion as to the degree, type of impairment). Fearing his father’s anger, the incident was not reported and his injury was not treated. With his hearing impaired, John Robert had significant difficulty in school and was for the next 6 years at the school considered “slow-witted”. At about age 10, a turn of events occurred that would change is life and set the young hearing impaired child on a path to great fame and fortune. The Gregg family was visited by a journalist friend of his father, who, while attending church, was observed taking notes using the Pitman shorthand system. The people in his village and John Roberts father were so impressed with this skill that it was decided the Gregg children should learn the system—all except John Robert, who was considered too “simple” and not capable of learning complex tasks. The Pitman shorthand system makes great speed possible but is difficult to master, and one by one the Gregg children became frustrated abandoned shorthand altogether. Maybe it was the challenge, possibly the sense that no one thought he could do it but John Robert learned the 1786 Taylor system of shorthand writing. While he excelled at shorthand writing the hearing impairment caused his grades to remain poor at the village school which was to be his only formal education. For a time as a teenager, he went to work to help support his family but later, in 1878, the Gregg family moved to Glasgow, Scotland, where John Robert found a position as an office boy in a lawyer’s office. Since his duties were light and he spent many hours devouring library books about shorthand writers and learning their systems. Further, he became self-educated, reading American history and attending debates and lectures, where he took notes in shorthand. At the age of 18, John Robert won a gold medal in a shorthand competition. Reporting on the accomplishment, a shorthand journal noted that “with him, shorthand is a work of love, and he has devoted no small amount of time to the collection of literature of the various systems and comparisons of their merits.” Eventually he mastered the Pitman system that had stymied his siblings, but he disliked the complexity of that system and continued to investigate others. During the time when John Robert was a young man, shorthand was a high technology, time-saving measure typically used by intellectuals, lawyers, preachers, politicians, and authors. Sources indicate that there were shorthand associations formed to discuss and debate the artistry and science of shorthand, shorthand theory, and the pursuit of an ideal shorthand system that was less complex and easy to learn, and yet efficient. In Glasgow, young John Robert was a member of one such organization where he wrote dissertations, corresponded worldwide with shorthand experts, and came to be regarded as an authority on the topic, even though he was only 19 years old.
One day Thomas Stratford Malone, a shorthand expert that ran his own shorthand school, asked John Robert to become a teacher at his school. Malone confided that he was working on a new system of shorthand similar to the one Gregg was perfecting. Malone offered to collaborate and to use his influence to get their combined system published. In 1885 Script Phonography was published with Malone listed as sole author. Gregg received no recompense for his contributions to the project. To no avail, Gregg spent the better part of the next few years attempting to get his share of book royalties and gain back the rights to ideas presented in the book that Malone stole from him. The suit was finally dismissed in 1890 with no compensation to John Robert. After this fiasco, his efforts toward becoming a shorthand guru, now at age 23, seemed to be in vain and even got worse as he lost his hearing in his good ear in 1893. While his hearing got a bit better with treatment his shorthand patent in the US was in danger. So with $130.00 (about $3,500 today) he moved to the United States where he would protect his copyright and establish a shorthand school. Landing in Boston, he opened a tiny shorthand school, and by lots of extremely hard work managed to eke out a meager living. Twenty years later Gregg recalled his first Christmas in Boston and his dream of “the United States covered with schools teaching Gregg Shorthand.” The dream became a reality after his 1895 move to Chicago, which was experiencing an economic boom in commerce and industry. Gregg opened one school and, shortly, his enterprise slowly grew to several schools. Word of Gregg’s shorthand system spread among business teachers to whom he offered free lessons to show them the ease of learning his system. He married Maida Wasson a teacher, journalist in 1899 and, while they had no children, she assisted him in building a premier business school upon which others were modeled. Becoming a US citizen in 1900, Gregg established a reputation as a lively and energetic public speaker often addressing important gatherings of business teachers. The results of his work paid off as in 1900, there were 28 public schools that taught the Gregg shorthand system, but by 1912 his system was in 533 schools and continuing to grow even more popular. Sources also suggest that, by this time, the Greggs entertained prominent members of Chicago society, including lawyer Clarence Darrow. When Maida died in 1928, John Robert remarried a former acquaintance Janet Kingsley in 1930. Janet was also an active participant in the family shorthand business and they had two children, Kate Kinley and John Robert. As recently as 20 years ago there were Gregg shorthand classes in virtually every high school in the United States. Of course, the fortunes of shorthand changed drastically with stenography machines, tape an voice recorders and computer technology.
Despite the hearing loss that continued throughout his life, John Robert Gregg had a remarkable career. While not much information is available on the hearing loss itself, his work was prolific through the 20s, 30s and 40s. He routinely continued to refine his system, publish numerous new books, update his older publications, edit the Gregg Writer (a shorthand journal) andcollect various honors and honorary degrees from many prestigious institutions. John Robert Gregg died of a heart attack February 23, 1948 after a brilliant “rags to riches” career and in the process becoming a Giant among those shorthanded by a hearing impairment.
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