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There you have it: a short course in the technology that made the Irishman John Robert Gregg an American tycoon in the first half of the 20th Century. By the time he died, in 1949, Gregg presided over an empire that reached from his headquarters on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan into almost every school, business and courthouse in the country. While he was fundamentally a publishing magnate—Gregg Publishing put out hundreds of textbooks, dictionaries, study guides, magazines, and shorthand versions of classical literature—John Robert Gregg also oversaw a national infrastructure of certification agencies, business schools, and testing facilities that endorsed the skills of all professional shorthand writers. If you wanted to be an executive secretary, you needed a certificate from Gregg saying you qualified at 150 words per minute. If you wanted to be a court reporter, you had to demonstrate you could write an astonishing 225 words per minute with better than 98 percent accuracy. Altogether, millions of people passed through Gregg training and the Gregg certification system.
For nearly a century, Gregg was an essential part of American society. As recently as the 1970s, almost every high school in the country taught Gregg. Certainly, every business school and most colleges offered Gregg-certified shorthand courses. But Gregg’s decline began when McGraw-Hill bought Gregg Publishing, shortly after John Robert Gregg’s death. The rise of stenography machines in the 1940s and 1950s steadily drove shorthand from the courtroom (though there are still a handful of “pen writers” in the federal court system). The Dictaphone and other recording devices made verbatim note taking less and less important in the office. And some people say improvements in women’s rights also played a role in the decline of Gregg. In a time when they were denied careers in fields like the law or medicine, the smartest, most talented women often ended up as secretaries or executive assistants and became gifted shorthand practitioners. In the 1960s and 1970s, as these women began to move on to better opportunities, those left behind never became quite as fast or skilled at the complexities of Gregg.
The real death knell for Gregg, though, was the arrival of the personal computer in the 1980s. Even high-level executives no longer dictated letters to their secretaries; they wrote them themselves on their desktop computers. Companies that used to have scores of skilled shorthand writers eliminated their steno pools entirely. Today, I'm not aware of any high school that teaches Gregg. It's almost impossible to find it taught in colleges—with two exceptions in Kingsborough and Queensborough community colleges in New York City, where Gregg writers are still prized by some white glove law firms. The only book still published by the Gregg Division of McGraw-Hill is The Gregg Manual, an office reference that contains no mention of shorthand.
But, as a technology for writing fast with pen and paper—still a fundamental skill for reporters like me—Gregg shorthand has never been surpassed. Nowadays, you may have to buy an old Gregg manual on e-Bay and teach yourself, but even if you just learn the basics, Gregg will probably double your note taking speed. With practice and daily use, it’s not uncommon to reach speeds of 100 words a minute or more. And, paradoxically, shorthand is the perfect complement to the 21st Century technology of the smartpen.
After all, shorthand—at least my shorthand—isn’t foolproof. Even though, for short stretches, I can write 120 words per minute, the average American now speaks at more than 150 words a minute, so something is inevitably lost in the translation. With my trusty Sky smartpen, though, I don’t have to worry. Most of the time, when I get around to writing the story, I can rely on my handwritten notes for short quotes and background information. But when I need a longer, verbatim quote, I can use my notes as a kind of index to find the right part of the interview, and tap there with my pen to hear the playback. No more of the forward/reverse dance with a digital recorder when it’s time to transcribe. It’s an almost flawless system.
But whenever I get a little too smug about my clever use of this hybrid technology, I like to think about the great court reporting contests of the late 1920s when legends of shorthand, like Charles Swem and Martin Dupraw, competed head-to-head against one another. They took dictation in categories like “jury charge” and “testimony.”
By 1927, the last of the National Speed Contests just between pen writers, the testimony category was conducted at 280 words a minute. That’s more than four words a second, fast even with a smartpen.
Dupraw won, for the third year in a row, with a fountain pen.