Thomas Shelton (stenographer)

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Thomas Shelton (1600/01–1650(?)) 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.

Norfolk County of England

Norfolk is a county in East Anglia in England. It borders Lincolnshire to the northwest, Cambridgeshire to the west and southwest, and Suffolk to the south. Its northern and eastern boundaries are the North Sea and, to the north-west, The Wash. The county town is Norwich. With an area of 2,074 square miles (5,370 km2) and a population of 859,400, Norfolk is a largely rural county with a population density of 401 per square mile. Of the county's population, 40% live in four major built up areas: Norwich (213,000), Great Yarmouth (63,000), King's Lynn (46,000) and Thetford (25,000).

English Civil War series of armed conflicts and political machinations between Parliamentarians and Royalists

The English Civil War (1642–1651) was a series of armed conflicts and political machinations between Parliamentarians ("Roundheads") and Royalists ("Cavaliers") over, principally, the manner of England's governance. The first (1642–1646) and second (1648–1649) wars pitted the supporters of King Charles I against the supporters of the Long Parliament, while the third (1649–1651) saw fighting between supporters of King Charles II and supporters of the Rump Parliament. The war ended with the Parliamentarian victory at the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651.

Parliament of England historic legislature of the Kingdom of England

The Parliament of England was the legislature of the Kingdom of England, existing from the early 13th century until 1707, when it merged with the Parliament of Scotland to become the Parliament of Great Britain after the political union of England and Scotland created the Kingdom of Great Britain.

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.

London Capital of the United Kingdom

London is the capital and largest city of the United Kingdom. Standing on the River Thames in the south-east of England, at the head of its 50-mile (80 km) estuary leading to the North Sea, London has been a major settlement for two millennia. Londinium was founded by the Romans. The City of London, London's ancient core − an area of just 1.12 square miles (2.9 km2) and colloquially known as the Square Mile − retains boundaries that follow closely its medieval limits. The City of Westminster is also an Inner London borough holding city status. Greater London is governed by the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.

Shelton's shorthand

Thomas Shelton's Tachygraphy shorthand alphabet Shelton-shorthand-alphabet.png
Thomas Shelton's Tachygraphy 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.

Consonant sound in spoken language, articulated with complete or partial closure of the vocal tract

In articulatory phonetics, a consonant is a speech sound that is articulated with complete or partial closure of the vocal tract. Examples are, pronounced with the lips;, pronounced with the front of the tongue;, pronounced with the back of the tongue;, pronounced in the throat; and, pronounced by forcing air through a narrow channel (fricatives); and and, which have air flowing through the nose (nasals). Contrasting with consonants are vowels.

vocalisation of Shelton shorthand Shelton-shorthand-vowel-examples.png
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 vowel is one of the two principal classes of speech sound, the other being a consonant. Vowels vary in quality, in loudness and also in quantity (length). They are usually voiced, and are closely involved in prosodic variation such as tone, intonation and stress. Vowel sounds are produced with an open vocal tract. The word vowel comes from the Latin word vocalis, meaning "vocal". In English, the word vowel is commonly used to refer both to vowel sounds and to the written symbols that represent them.

A disadvantage of Shelton's shorthand was that vowels and diphthongs were not always distinguished (see "Tachygraphy" [1] 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.

A diphthong, also known as a gliding vowel, is a combination of two adjacent vowel sounds within the same syllable. Technically, a diphthong is a vowel with two different targets: that is, the tongue moves during the pronunciation of the vowel. In most dialects of English, the phrase no highway cowboys has five distinct diphthongs, one in every syllable.

Paris Capital of France

Paris is the capital and most populous city of France, with an area of 105 square kilometres and an official estimated population of 2,140,526 residents as of 1 January 2019. Since the 17th century, Paris has been one of Europe's major centres of finance, commerce, fashion, science, and the arts.

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".


Shelton's Tachygraphy was taken up and adapted by later proponents of shorthand systems: Thomas Arkisden, [2] Theophilus Metcalfe, [3] and Charles Aloysius Ramsay. [4] Elisha Coles adapted Zeiglographia. [5]


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Charles Aloysius Ramsay (fl.1677–1680) was a Scottish-Prussian writer on stenography and translator. He spent his time on the continent of Europe, and his shorthand system, which owed much to Thomas Shelton's, became popular in France during the 1680s.


  1. Chap. V, "Of diphthongs", p. 9 in ed. 1710. For instance, "lion" is noted with both its vowels.
  2. Considine, John. "Arkisden, Thomas". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/644.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. Henderson, Frances. "Metcalfe, Theophilus". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/18622.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. Life, Page. "Ramsay, Charles Aloysius". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/23078.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  5. Life, Page. "Coles, Elisha". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/5892.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)