PITMAN, (Sir) Isaac

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PITMAN, (Sir) Isaac [1813–97]. English educational reformer, businessman, and inventor of the Pitman shorthand system. Born in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, the son of a hand weaver, he left school at 13 and served for a time as a clerk in a textile mill. He then trained as a teacher in 1831, taught as headmaster in various schools, and finally had a school of his own. Intrigued by John Walker's pronouncing dictionary and Samuel Taylor's shorthand, he developed a system of his own based on the representation of sound, described first in Stenographic Sound Hand (1837), then in Phonography (1840). The latter was also called ‘the Penny Plate’ (because it was sent out by the new penny post) and was the world's first correspondence course. It was initially offered free of charge, a mark of Pitman's concern for ‘educating anyone of any class from anywhere who could read and had the desire to learn’ (Frances Moss, Pitman: 150 Years of Innovation in Business Education, 1987).

The system classifies speech sounds into groups, consonants being shown as strokes and generally paired (for example, a lightly written stroke for f and a heavier variant for v), vowels as dots and dashes, and abbreviations of consonant clusters (str), syllables (der), and affixes (tion) as circles, loops, and hooks. The system was refined through many editions, changes often causing confusion among users. The 10th edition of Phonography (1857) established the vowels as they have continued to be used, and the New Era edition (1922) contained extra devices for high-speed reporting at up to 250 words per minute. The Pitman system benefited from the spread of British imperial administration in the later 19c.

In 1843, Pitman set up his Phonetic Institute in Bath as a publishing house and marketing operation. His success in recording verbatim an anti-Corn Law speech by William Cobden gained converts to his system and in due course his shorthand was used for preparing Hansard, the official record of Parliament. He founded The Phonotypic Journal in 1840, which was for a time The Phonetic Journal, became Pitman's Shorthand Weekly in 1892, and Office Training in the 1930s. In 1870, Pitman's Metropolitan College opened, perhaps the first school of business education in the world, with a syllabus covering office routine, accounting and law, and shorthand and typing. In addition to being used throughout the world for English, Pitman's system of shorthand has been adapted for such languages as Arabic, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, Latin, Persian, Spanish, Welsh, and Tamil. His system of phonetic English spelling had little impact, however, although it served as the basis of the Initial Teaching Alphabet, devised by his grandson James Pitman in 1959.