Shorthand dates to 18th century

Published 1:51 am Saturday, September 22, 2018

Back in high school when I studied shorthand, I never gave a thought to who invented it. In fact, it was more years than I want to reveal that my curiosity was aroused about its origin. It happened one day when I was thumbing through “The Gospel in Hymns,” a book written by Albert Edward Bailey. From it, I learned that a poet named John Byrom developed a method in the 18th Century and it played an important part in hymn writing.

Among those who studied shorthand under Byrom were two great hymn writers, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and his brother Charles Wesley. It was taught at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Even the Clerk of the House of Lords used it.

Charles Wesley, who once served as secretary to Governor Oglethorpe in Georgia, took down the governor’s conferences with the Indians in shorthand. His mastery of shorthand was such that he kept journals of his ministry in shorthand and used it to compose most of his hymns. And note this: he often wrote them while he traveled by horseback. Can you imagine the talented songwriter scribbling the lines of “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing; Praise the Lord Who Reigns Above; The Hidden Source of Calm Repose; or Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow,” while he trotted along? To me, it is even more proof that he was given holy inspiration to pen words of inspiration and thanksgiving under such circumstances.

Byrom, a doctor and surgeon as well as shorthand developer, also tried his hand at writing hymns. Upon his passing, he left a manuscript of poems that were later published. Some of those were hymns for different church days. One of them was “Christians Awake, Salute the Happy Morn,” written in 1749. His daughter, who had asked him to write her something for Christmas, found the poem beside her breakfast plate that year at Christmas with the inscription, “Christmas Day for Dolly.” Organist John Wainwright composed the tune for it. A year later the family was awakened on Christmas morning by a choir singing it as they stood below the Byrom’s windows.

After learning about Byrom’s shorthand invention, I turned to an encyclopedia to see if the origin of shorthand was mentioned and found that hundreds of shorthand systems have been devised. The one I was taught in high school was not the Byrom system. The one I took was the Gregg method, invented by an Irish educator. It was first published in England in 1888. It served me well in my first job. Many years later, I was amazed I could still remember it enough to use it again as a reporter.

Sometimes when I join in congregational hymn singing, my eyes stray to the top left corner of the hymnal to find who the hymn writer is. If it is Charles Wesley, I wonder if it might have been one he composed in shorthand as he trotted along on horseback.



Nina Keenam is a former newspaper reporter.