Staying on the straight road

Stenography symbols

Thomas Shelton (16(?)) was an English stenographer and the inventor of a much-used British 17th- and 18th-century stenography.

The 1647 edition of Thomas Shelton's Tachygraphie contains a portrait giving his age as 46, implying that he was born in 1600/01. Nothing sure is known about his origin and education, but it was supposed that he came from the well-known Shelton family which owned much land in Norfolk. In the English Civil War (1642–49), Shelton stood on the side of the Parliament; his religious sympathies were for Puritanism.

Thomas Shelton made his living from shorthand, teaching the subject in London over a period of thirty years while he developed his stenographical systems. Shelton knew the stenography of John Willis and took over its geometrical basic principle for his own shorthand. He published several books about shorthand which he sold from his house.

Shelton's shorthand[edit]

Thomas Shelton's shorthand alphabet

Shelton invented a new stenographical system and published it in 1626 in the book Short-Writing (in later editions since 1635 called "Tachygraphy", Ancient Greek for "speedy writing"). In Shelton's shorthand system every consonant was expressed by an easy symbol which sometimes still resembled the alphabetical letter.

vocalisation of Shelton shorthand

The vowels were designated by the height of the following consonant. Thus the B symbol with the l symbol written directly above meant "ball", while the B symbol with the l symbol below meant "bull". The B symbol with the l symbol on top right meant "bell", in the middle right "bill", below on the right "boll". A vowel at the word end was designated by a point in the suitable position. For initial vowels there were additional symbols. There were other symbols for frequent prefixes and suffixes as well as for consonant connections.

A disadvantage of Shelton's shorthand was that vowels and diphthongs were not always distinguished (see "Tachygraphy" for details). For example, the symbols for "bat" could mean "bait" or "bate" as well, and the symbols for "bot" could mean "boot" or "boat" as well. This can only be decided from the context. An advantage of his system was that it could be easily learnt. Therefore, between 1626 and 1710 more than 20 editions of his "Tachygraphy" were printed. German issues appeared between 1679 and 1743 and a French issue in Paris in 1681.

Shelton's shorthand was used, amongst others, by Samuel Pepys, Sir Isaac Newton and US-President Thomas Jefferson. In the year of his death, 1650, Shelton published yet another shorthand system called "Zeiglographia", but it did not become as widespread as his "Tachygraphy".


  1. Chap. V, "Of diphthongs", p. 9 in ed. 1710. For instance, "lion" is noted with both its vowels.
Name Shelton, Thomas Alternative names Short description English stenographer Date of birth Place of birth Date of death 1650
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