Sir Isaac Pitman is a name that may be vaguely familiar to you. Not so long ago secretaries, journalists and many others spent hours learning the squiggles and lines of Pitman shorthand as a means of swift note-taking. With the advance of technology these skills are no longer in demand and, like Morse Code, the intricacies of shorthand notation has become the preserve of the dedicated and well-trained. Pitman was born in Trowbridge the son of a weaving mill manager and initially had a poor education, leaving the mill school at twelve. With a characteristic application to work and study he educated himself by extensive reading through which he developed an interest in English orthography. This sparked a lifetime obsession with the phonetics of language and how to record it leading him to develop his own style of shorthand and proposing extensive spelling reforms.
Trained as an English teacher, Pitman worked in Lincolnshire and Gloucestershire before moving to Bath in 1841 to set up a new school, and be closer to the New (Swedenborgian) Church community of which he was a strong advocate. With his brother Joseph, Isaac had already developed the first edition of his shorthand notation, published in 1837 as Stenographic Sound-Hand. A second edition followed shortly thereafter, in 1840, in which he coined the term ‘phonography’ for his notation system in Phonography, or, Writing by Sound, being also a New and Natural system of Short-Hand. Pitman and his five brothers travelled the country to promote the new shorthand system, and its popularity grew. Twenty editions were published in his own lifetime with various edits, from minor tweaks to schism-forming major revisions, being developed. The growing demand for shorthand tutors and his other publications lead Pitman to set up a printing press in his own home in Nelson Place, thus founding the first Phonetic Institute.
Shorthand was a useful tool for noting the sounds and letter groups of a language, but it was only legible to those who had been trained to use it, so could not be used as a notation for general use. There were also issues concerning the ease with which it could be printed – there were too many forms for the notation to be viably turned into cast metal founts this requiring lithographic printing. Pitman’s interest in phonetic alphabets led him to attempt to design a new phonetic notation for language sounds using regular letter forms, but this proved to be more complex and contentious than expected. It did lead to Pitman developing a theory of reformed spelling, drawing up rules for its use and introduction through the use of the standard alphabet rather than a modified one. His printing output expanded, the Fonteik Institute moving first to Albion Place, then to Kingston Buildings as the business expanded. It produced magazines, pamphlets and religious tracts printed using his reformed spelling. Even Pitman’s letters and memos came with instructions relating to the alternate spelling and, for a while, he used the spelling of Eizak for his first name. The ghost of the fourth Institute is manifested in the street sign for Kingston Buildings.
Even if Pitman’s attempt to reform the spelling of English was not successful, his printing business was. It grew from the single printing press in his house in 1845 expanding through several buildings until the fifth Institute was set up in Twerton in 1889. Pitman had brought his two sons, Ernest and Alfred, into the business in 1886 to form Isaac Pitman & Sons in time for them to mastermind the last move to just outside the city limits of Bath. The company continued to expand after his death on the same site and even incorporated an Airscrew Overhaul factory on the premises as part of the war effort in World War II. The Pitman name finally disappeared from the company when it became Bath Press, but this folded in 2007 due to competition from its far eastern rivals for price and value.
Sir Isaac Pitman died at his home in the Royal Crescent January 1897 three years after earning his knighthood for ‘services to Stenography’. His sons continued the business and his grandson became well known for developing the Initial Teaching Alphabet to aid the development of early reading skills: Sir (Isaac) James Pitman also represented Bath as her MP from 1945 to 1964. The Pitman name is still familiar around Bath, but the direct ties are fading as the business changed its name and then disappeared completely. The factory is still there, much altered from its initial incarnation as the Fifth Fonetik Institute, but it now lies empty and waiting for a new purpose.
It is only the curious and observant who now notice the strange spelling of the street name at Kingston Buildings and wonder why.
Tony D. Triggs, ‘Pitman, Sir Isaac (1813–1897)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/22322, accessed 8 June 2015]
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