Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Pitman, Isaac

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PITMAN, Sir ISAAC (1813–1897), the inventor of phonography, born at Trowbridge, Wiltshire, on 4 Jan. 1813, was son of Samuel Pitman, who then held the post of overseer in an extensive cloth factory, and who afterwards established a factory of his own. He acquired the rudiments of an English education in the grammar school of his native town, but he left it at the age of thirteen, and subsequently received lessons from a private teacher in his father's house. In 1831 it was decided that he should become a schoolmaster, and he accordingly went through a brief course of training at the college of the British and Foreign School Society in Borough Road, London. He was sent in January 1832 to take charge of an endowed school at Barton-on-Humber, Lincolnshire. Four years later he removed to Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire, where he was invited by a committee to establish a school on the model of the British and Foreign schools. In 1837 he was dismissed from the mastership because he had given grave offence to the managers by joining the 'New Church,' founded by Emmanuel Swedenborg, of which during the remainder of his life he was a devoted adherent. He was also a strict vegetarian. In June 1839 he settled in Bath, and established at 5 Nelson Place a private school, which he conducted till 1843.

He had begun to learn Taylor's system of shorthand about 1829 [see Taylor, Samuel], and it was this apparently trivial circumstance that altered the whole tenor of his career. Having derived great advantage from the use of the system in the saving of time, he earnestly desired to popularise the stenographic art by having it taught in schools as part of the ordinary curriculum. At that period there were no cheap shorthand manuals in existence. He therefore drew up a brief exposition of Taylor's method, which was to be illustrated with two plates and sold for threepence. This he forwarded in the spring of 1837 to Samuel Bagster (1771-1852) [q. v.], the London publisher, whose friendship he had previously gained by the gratuitous correction of references in the 'Comprehensive Bible.' The manuscript was shown to an experienced reporter, who pronounced against the reproduction of a system already in the market, and in forwarding this opinion Bagster intimated that if an original system were devised by his correspondent he would undertake the publication of it. Pitman at once set to work, and on 15 Nov. 1837 'Stenographic Sound-Hand' made its appearance in the shape of a little fourpenny book with two neatly engraved plates. In the introduction the inventor set forth the advantages of a system of shorthand written by sound over methods which followed the current orthography. He admitted that previous short-hand authors had to a limited extent adopted the phonetic principle, though mainly in regard to the consonants ; but he supplied a greatly improved and extended vowel scale which is undoubtedly the most original feature of his scheme. It is a curious fact that he altogether discarded the looped letters of the Taylor alphabet, and assigned the small circle, with an alternative character, to the representation of the letter s, as had been done in the system of William Mason (fl. 1672-1709) [q. v.], published in 1682. He also introduced the principle of 'pairing' the consonants and of 'shading,' or the use of thin and thick strokes for indicating cognate consonants. In this rare booklet, immature and incomplete though it be, the stenographic expert will at once recognise the main features of the present highly developed system of phonography.

The manuscript of the second edition was ready in the autumn of 1839, but its publication was deferred till the penny post came into operation on 10 Jan. 1840. It then appeared in the form of a penny plate with this title : 'Phonography, or Writing by Sound, being also a New and Natural System of Short Hand.' Some copies, mounted on canvas and bound in cloth, with two chapters from the New Testament as additional exercises, were sold at one shilling each. Several important improvements were introduced into this second edition. The steel plate was beautifully engraved, but in almost microscopic characters, so that it was not well adapted to become a medium for learning the system. Copies were, however, widely distributed to schoolmasters all over the country, and, when these had been well circulated, Pitman began his phonographic propaganda by devoting his school holidays to lecturing tours. The third edition of 'Phonography' was brought out at the close of 1840 in an octavo volume, with fuller explanations of the system, and altogether better adapted for the purpose of instruction in the art. The fourth edition appeared in 1841, the fifth in 1842, the sixth in 1844, the seventh in 1845, the eighth in 1847, the ninth in 1852, the tenth (with a new vowel scale) in 1857, the eleventh in 1862, and the twelfth in 1867. There were many later issues, but these were not designated as separate editions. In addition to the manuals, a very large number of books were published in illustration of the system, such as 'Copy Books,' the 'Class Book,' the 'Exercises,' the 'Teacher,' the 'Reporter's Companion,' and a 'Phonetic Shorthand and Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language.' Many standard works were also printed in the phonographic shorthand characters, including the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, Bacon's 'Essays,' Bunyan's 'Pilgrim's Progress,' Cowper's 'Poetical Works,' Craik's 'John Halifax,' Dickens's ' Pickwick Papers ' and 'Oliver Twist,' Goldsmith's ' Vicar of Wakefield,' Hughes's 'Tom Brown's Schooldays,' Washington Irving's * Tales and Sketches,' Johnson's 'Rasselas,' Macaulay's 'Essays' and 'Biographies,' Milton's 'Paradise Lost,' More's 'Utopia,' Scott's ' Waverley,' and Swift's 'Gulliver's Travels.'

Meanwhile the phonographic crusade had met with extraordinary success. Pitman found it necessary, in 1843, to give up his school, and to abandon travelling and lecturing, in order to devote himself to the production of instruction books and other literature. By this time other labourers had come into the field, to whose co-operation the progress of the new movement was greatly indebted. His brothers Joseph and Benjamin (afterwards known in America as Benn Pitman) lectured throughout the country, sometimes together and sometimes separately. Thomas Allen Reed joined Joseph Pitman in 1843, and, having acquired great facility as a phonographic writer, was able to demonstrate by practical experiments the capabilities of the new system in the hands of an expert penman. Among the other lecturers and teachers were Pitman's brothers, Henry and Frederick in England, and Jacob in Australia. From time to time phonographic 'Festivals' were held, at which the progress already made was reviewed, and workers in the cause were stimulated to fresh exertions. A 'Phonetic Society' was also established. This enthusiastic propaganda extended to America and Australia, and wherever the English tongue was spoken the number of phonographers daily increased. At the present time phonography is doing nine-tenths of the shorthand writing and reporting of the English-speaking communities, and there is no other stenographic system that can approach it in the extent to which it is taught and used. Among short-hand clerks and amanuenses Pitman's is almost the only method employed. Several variations of the system have been published in the United States, but they are based on the original alphabet. The framework of phonography has been subjected to severe criticism, especially by Edward Pocknell, Thomas Anderson, and Hugh L. Callendar, who have, however, failed in their attempts to devise superior systems of their own. Pitman's system has been adapted to French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Welsh, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Chinese, Japanese, and Malagasy.

Pitman devoted much of his energy to the advancement of the spelling reform, and in 1844 he for the first time addressed his readers in phonotypy, or a phonetic printing alphabet, with a sufficient number of new letters to supply the deficiencies of the common alphabet. In the promotion of this movement he had for some years the assistance of Alexander John Ellis [q. v. Suppl.] The introduction of new types, although it made possible the use of a scientifically perfect alphabet, proved to be an insurmountable obstacle to the general adoption of phonetic printing, and after experiments with new types extending over forty years Pitman adopted, in 1883, with some additions, the rules recommended by the American Spelling Reform Association and the American Philological Society in order to secure the phonetic representation of the language without the addition of new letters to the alphabet. Another of Pitman's cherished schemes for the introduction of a duodecimal method of arithmetical notation, in substitution of the decimal numeration, also proved abortive.

From 1847 to 1855 the first Phonetic Institute in Albion Place, Bath, was the head-quarters of phonography and the spelling reform; the institute was removed to Parsonage Lane in 1855, to Kingston's Buildings in 1874, and finally to a new building in the suburbs of Bath in 1889.

The first International Congress and Jubilee of Phonography were jointly celebrated in London in 1887, under the presidency of the Earl of Rosebery. On this occasion a fine bust of Pitman, by Thomas Brock, was presented to him and his family. In 1889 a replica of this jubilee bust was presented to Pitman by the citizens of Bath, and it was placed in the Royal Literary and Scientific Institution of that city. On 18 July 1894 Pitman received the honour of knighthood 'at Windsor Castle, on the ground of his great services to stenography, and the immense utility of that art.'

Soon afterwards he retired from partnership with his sons, and conferred on them his interests in the phonographic text-books and other works of which he was the author. At the time of his retirement he had been uninterruptedly engaged in the work connected with his invention of phonography for fifty-seven years, and had edited the 'Phonetic Journal' for fifty-two years.

He died at Bath on 22 Jan. 1897, and in accordance with his wishes his remains were cremated at Woking. He was twice married, first, on 21 April 1861, to Isabella, daughter of James Masters, and left two sons. Alfred and Ernest. A mural tablet to his memory was unveiled on 15 July 1901 at 17 Royal Crescent, Bath, where Pitman resided in his later years.

[Information from Alfred Pitman, esq.; Biography by Thomas Allen Reed, with portraits, illustrations, and facsimiles, 1890; Life and Work of Pitman, 1894; Phonetic Journal, 1870, p. 98, 12 March 1887, and 6 Feb. 1897 (with portraits reproduced from the Strand Magazine); Sir Isaac Pitman's Phonography by Alfred Pitman, in French and English, Paris, 1900; Anderson's Catechism of Shorthand; Anderson's Hist. of Shorthand; Anderson's Shorthand Systems; Annual Register, 1897, Chron. p. 141; Callendar's Manual of Cursive Shorthand; Christian Age, 23 Feb. 1887; Gibons's Bibliography of Shorthand; Harper's Monthly, lx. 192; Levy's Hist. of Shorthand; Men and Women of the Time, 1895; Rockwell's Shorthand Instruction and Practice (Washington, 1893); Shorthand, a magazine; Transactions of the International Shorthand Congress, 1887; Vegetarian Messenger, May 1887.]

T. C.