John Robert Gregg

views updated

John Robert Gregg

Irish-born educator John Robert Gregg (1867-1948) is best known for inventing the system of shorthand writing that bears his name. His phonetic system became the dominant method in the United States and is still in use today, although it has largely been supplanted by computers and word processors.

John Robert Gregg was born in a small town in Ireland on June 17, 1867. He was the youngest of five children born to Robert and Margaret Gregg, who were Presbyterians and strict disciplinarians. The senior Gregg, a worker for the railroad, had an inventive, inquiring mind, and two of his children were considered brilliant. Great things were expected of the youngest Gregg when he started school at the age of five. However, on his second day at school, his teacher grew so angry at Gregg's whispering with a school-mate that he "crashed the children's heads together so violently that he severely damaged John's hearing," according to Leslie Cowan his book John Robert Gregg. Fearing his father's anger, Gregg did not report the incident and his injury was not treated. With his hearing thus impaired, Gregg had difficulty in school and was thereafter considered slow-witted.

Became Enamored of Shorthand Writing

When Gregg was about ten years old, the family was visited by a journalist friend of his father, who, while attending church, was observed taking notes using the Pitman shorthand system (introduced by Isaac Pitman in 1837 and, with improvements, still the most widely used system in English-speaking countries today). The villagers were tremendously impressed and so was John Gregg, who decided that his children should learn the system—all except his youngest child, who was considered too "simple." The Pitman system makes great speed possible but is difficult to master, and one by one the Gregg children abandoned it. Young Gregg, fascinated by the concept, decided that he would learn another system of shorthand writing. He took up the 1786 system of Samuel Taylor and excelled at it, but his grades remained poor throughout the six years he spent at the village school. That was his only formal education; he then went to work to help support his family.

In 1878, the Gregg family moved to Glasgow, Scotland, where young Gregg found a position as an office boy in a lawyer's office. His duties were light and he spent many happy hours devouring library books about shorthand writers and learning their systems. He became a self-educated man, reading American history and attending debates and lectures, at which he took notes in shorthand. At the age of 18 Gregg 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 that system and continued to investigate others.

Although shorthand would later became the property of people preparing for secretarial positions, during Gregg's young manhood it was a time-saving measure used by intellectuals, lawyers, preachers, politicians, and authors. Shorthand associations formed and members met to discuss and debate the artistry and science of shorthand, shorthand theory, and the pursuit of an ideal system—one that was simple and unburdened by an overabundance of symbols. Gregg, a member of one such organization, also wrote dissertations, corresponded with shorthand experts around the world, and came to be regarded as an authority, although he was only 19 years old. One day a man named Malone, who ran his own shorthand school and was regarded as an expert, asked Gregg to become a teacher at his school. The extra income was welcome, and the two men became friendly. Malone confided that he was working on a new system of shorthand much like the one Gregg was perfecting. Malone offered to collaborate and to use his influence to get the system published. In 1885 Script Phonography was published with Malone listed as sole author. Gregg received no recompense for his rights in the project.

Gregg Shorthand System Published

Gregg later described Script Phonograpy as "a crude, hurried production." Disillusioned by Malone's betrayal but spurred into action, he continued to work on devising a new and better shorthand system. When in a short space of time he lost both his brother and sister to tuberculosis, Gregg decided to move to Liverpool, England, where his brother Samuel lived. With a small amount of money he had managed to save, he set up a shorthand school. He was an enthusiastic teacher and before long his school was flourishing in a small way. Then one day, as Symonds related it, Gregg resurrected his old notes and saw that his "dream system was already virtually complete. It was wonderfully easy to write and beautiful to look at." With a small amount of money borrowed from his reluctant brother, in 1888 Gregg published 500 copies of Light-Line Phonetic Hand-Writing, a 28-page pamphlet describing the basic principles of his shorthand system. Called light-line phonography, it was based on longhand writing, with connected vowels and no shading (the Pitman system uses shading; heavily drawn lines have different meanings from the same lines lightly drawn). A second 28-page pamphlet designed for the advanced student was published with money he earned from pioneer Light-Line students.

The impoverished 20-year-old author faced the problem of making his system known to a larger public. He distributed cheap leaflets and posters and later benefited from word-of-mouth by his students, who were easily and quickly reaching a speed of 100 words a minute with Gregg shorthand. According to Cowan, "When the intellectuals, shorthand enthusiasts, and historians discovered Light-Line, all but the entrenched bigots acknowledged that John had solved the problems which had pre-occupied the attentions of inventors for more than 2,000 years." But it required constant effort over the next two decades to win wide acceptance for his system.

Gregg set up shorthand schools in Manchester, England, and his pamphlets were printed in several editions. He defended himself in a London court against a suit brought by Malone, who claimed that Gregg's shorthand system infringed on Malone's copyrighted system; the case was dismissed in 1890, but the legal costs set Gregg back in his efforts to publicize Light-Line shorthand. But thanks to favorable reviews in newspapers and magazines, written by shorthand enthusiasts and journalists who had mastered his system, Gregg shorthand was becoming known in North America.

Success in America

All of Gregg's efforts seemed to have come to nothing when, early in 1893, he lost the hearing in his good ear. That same year a former pupil, then living in Boston, wrote to tell him that his American copyright was in danger. With treatment, he partially recovered his hearing, and in August 1893 he set out with enthusiasm and $130 in his pocket to protect his copyright and to spread the good news about Light-Line shorthand throughout the United States. He landed in Boston, opened a tiny school for the teaching of shorthand, and by dint 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 a boom in commerce and industry. Gregg opened one school and his enterprise slowly grew to several schools. Word of Gregg's system spread among teachers of business classes. He offered free lessons to public school teachers to show them how easy the system was to learn.

By 1896 dozens of American public schools were teaching Gregg Shorthand. The first Gregg Shorthand Association was formed in Chicago that year with 40 members. Its purpose was to extend the use of the system while providing a social outlet for people of common interests. Increasingly, students of the Gregg system were winning shorthand competitions. The wins—and other shorthand news—were reported in Gregg's magazine, The Lightliner, which had an international following. In 1897 the Gregg Publishing Company was formed to publish shorthand textbooks.

Gregg established a reputation as a scintillating public speaker and was often invited to address important gatherings of business teachers. In 1899 he married Maida Wasson, a teacher and journalist from Hannibal, Missouri. She was his constant companion and assisted him in his work. The couple produced no children, but over the years they invited many young students to live in their home until they could afford to go out on their own. The Greggs entertained prominent members of Chicago society, including lawyer Clarence Darrow. Gregg became an American citizen in 1900. Over the next ten years, his Gregg School at Chicago expanded to offer other business courses; it became the standard against which all such institutions were judged.

By 1907 Gregg was so successful that he opened an office in New York and then moved there, determined to allow himself a respite from his busy schedule to begin enjoying life. He became a patron of the fine and applied arts and a supporter of struggling young artists. Meanwhile, the popularity of his shorthand system grew; according to Cowan, 28 public school systems taught the system in 1900, but by 1912 it was being taught in 533. Recognition and honors were bestowed upon Gregg. In 1914 the New York Board of Education approved the experimental introduction of Gregg Shorthand into its high schools, where the Pitman system had long held sway. That same year the system was admitted to two prestigious universities, Columbia (New York) and the University of California-Berkeley. In 1918 a Gregg student won for the first time the National Shorthand Reporters Association contest, the "supreme accolade of the reporting profession," according to Cowan. Demand for Gregg shorthand classes and textbooks exploded.

After World War I, Gregg traveled extensively throughout Great Britain, hoping to popularize his system there. He was not quite as successful in this endeavor as he had been in America, but he saw Gregg shorthand become wildly popular in France, Germany, Poland, Spain, and especially Latin America, where for years Gregg's birthday was a national holiday. Maida Gregg died in London on June 28, 1928, and Gregg returned to New York. He threw himself into volunteer work and continued to perfect the Gregg system. Over the next several years he was the recipient of several honorary degrees from American educational institutions; at one such ceremony in June 1930 he renewed his acquaintance with Janet Kinley, daughter of the president of the University of Illinois. The two were married in October of that year. They bought a home in Cannondale, a historic section of Wilton, Connecticut. Named by Gregg "The Ovals," the home became a magnet for gatherings of people from the arts and education worlds. Janet Gregg was an active participant in the family business and bore Gregg two children, Kate Kinley and John Robert.

In the 1930s Gregg began writing a history of shorthand, the subject that had been his lifelong obsession. The first chapter was printed in 1933 and successive chapters followed at intervals until 1936. He continued publishing The Gregg Writer, a magazine for devout followers of his system that he had taken over in 1901. He updated his own textbooks and also published the works of Gregg shorthand experts. Gregg devoted time to charitable work and instituted scholarships in the arts and in court reporting at his Chicago school. His voluntary work on behalf of Allied soldiers and British civilians during World War II won recognition from King George VI, who awarded him a medal for "Service in the Cause of Freedom" in 1947. In December of that year Gregg underwent surgery from which he seemed to recover well. However, on February 23, 1948, he suffered a heart attack and died in Cannondale, Connecticut at the age of eighty.


Cowan, Leslie, John Robert Gregg, Pre-Raphaelite Press, 1984.

Symonds, F. Addington, John Robert Gregg, The Man and His Work, Gregg, 1963.

Who Was Who in America, Marquis, 1966.

World of Invention, Gale, 1994.


"Shorthand," Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth edition, 15, 2001). □