By James Labosier ~

The duty of manufacturing typed transcriptions of handwritten texts includes familiarity. Usually on first look 18th and nineteenth century handwriting is discouraging. It doesn’t need you to learn it. However as soon as you’re taking a while trying carefully at every phrase, you come to know the author and the way she or he formed sure letters and phrases. When you and the author perceive one another, transcription begins to collect velocity. Beneath is a web page of handwriting which, over time, grew to become completely comprehensible to me.

Lectures on Chemistry, by George Fordyce, London, ca. 1770
Nationwide Library of Medication #2931109R

MS B 346: Materia Medica, ca. 1750

The transcriber is happiest to come back throughout handwriting that’s regular, clear, and completely legible producing not one ounce of perspiration. I discovered such a paragon within the collections of the Nationwide Library of Medication in a pocket book, maybe from a lecture or stored as reference materials, by an unknown writer. Right here is part of web page 13 in MS B 346: Materia Medica, ca. 1750:

Two lines from a handwritten page showing clear, readable cursive handwriting.

However generally, these splendidly legible passages are interspersed with myriad eccentric characters and shapes greatest identified to alien life forces. When Phlorg is out in one other a part of the galaxy, deciphering falls solely on the transcriber. The characters I encountered are shorthand. This observe of constructing handwriting faster and extra environment friendly has been used since antiquity. Nonetheless, there are a plethora of programs which took maintain in numerous centuries, eras, and languages. The actual shorthand system in query, besmirching the whole lot of MS B 346, eluded my means to seek out its systemic key.

Beneath is a pattern from web page 17.

A detail from a handwritten page showing shorthand symbols interspersed with words.

A table showing an example of shorthand where various symbols replace vowels and consonant groups.
In Stenography compleated; or, The artwork of short-hand dropped at perfection …, 1743
Through Flickr

Of the varied programs of English shorthand generally used within the 1700s, I got here throughout none that approximated the gibberish I needed to decipher. The few programs I discovered have been extra targeted on letters and partial phrases. Not solely did the symbols in these programs not match these I confronted, nevertheless it was clear to me that most of the characters I noticed represented entire phrases, not letters. So, on the threat of being embarrassed sooner or later by somebody presenting me with a concise glossary of this shorthand system, I undertook to decipher it myself.

The primary few successes have been encouraging. Context made it simple to inform what symbols have been used for “the” and “is”. After that, issues grew to become trickier. When I discovered a sure form recurring and couldn’t simply determine its that means, I collected a sequence of cases in context and hoped that finally I might discover the one phrase that match all these “blanks.”

Right here is how the phrase “maintain” was wrested from the world of doodles:

The printed word "KEEP" under a curved line.Does this image imply: dry? stand? exert? maintain?

  • p107 – “in ointment it doesn’t [   ] a lot, and generally retains the acidity”
  • p135 – “the Seeds don’t [  ] a lot and are weaker”
  • p153 – “for occasionally the Egg. Gum, or sugar which was to [   ] its elements separate are washed away”
  • p183 – “says it’s wonderful within the cricis [    ] of inflam: Fevers, although extra particularly in putrid Fevers.”

Various angular symbols labeled ALL, AT, IT, and IT'S.Ultimately, I discovered that many of the symbols stood for prepositions, articles, and frequently used small phrases. I attempted to group the same shapes collectively, hoping that there was some significant relation within the variations of a selected form. As seen right here, that principle has its faults.

So, after I used to be happy that every squiggle stood for a phrase, I discovered clearly handwritten phrases with squiggles appended to them, which upset your entire system. They have been not entire phrases! In time, I decided that they stood for frequent finish elements of phrases.

Six symbols consisting of dots or angular shapes identified as: -ON, -AGES, -AL, -ENTS ,-NTS, and -MENT.Symbols that resemble "d" and "dc" labeled BE and BECOME, BECOMING respectively.Then, simply to taunt my smug sense of success, the writer threw in compound phrases made up completely of symbols. “Be” and “turn into” offered their inscrutable selves regularly.

Lastly, after I figured all these items out, the author declared victory by scribbling a number of shapes, strains, and loops and utilizing them solely a couple of times. I couldn’t discover sufficient makes use of in context to be taught what they meant, and because the writer smiled from the grave I transcribed them as “[illegible]”.

Five unidentified symbols resembling the letters w, u, m and loops.

And so, in conclusion, the transcription remains to be imperfect, and a few in any other case legible data is misplaced—however I declare partial victory!


For these devoted decoders amongst you, here’s a scan web page 123 from Materia Medica (MS B 346) together with a deciphered transcription:

A page from a handwritten notebook with information about herbs written in cursive and symbols.
Materia Medica, ca.1770 (MS B 346)
Nationwide Library of Medication #9802942

a stim: and used as a substitute of Vol: Alk that which it’s
slower and extra lasting although heating
[Stechus] Arabica or
it’s mentioned to take part the virtues of the order.
the [marjorana] Origanum of Lin: candy Margoram.
a pot herb. a warmish fragrant bitterish Style
a gentle stimulating fragrant and used as one in all
the Components of the Pulvis Cephal: as a milder Sternatutory
its distilled Water has been used for
the identical Goal, it has a powerful odor although little
Style
the Wild Margoram Origanum.
it’s extra stimulating although not so aromatic, its
Important oil obtained by the watery Distillation
is so very acrid and penetrating that it’s used to destroy the Nerves
in a Caries of the Tooth Oil of Origanum.
Dictamnus Creticus. Dittany of Sweet, or of Creta
stimulating to a powerful Diploma and fragrant, Uterine
deservedly recommended in exhausting labor. Diagor:
we hardly even have it right here match to be used. the antients
are extravagant in its Reward.
the Marum Vulgare frequent Herb Mastick. the Mastichum of Lin:
subacrid arom: Style agrees intirely with the Order.
the Saturia Hortensis of Lin: the Summer time Savory.
the Med Virt: the identical because the Order.

And right here is a part of my hard-won information to deciphered symbols:

A full page of symbols and their definitions.James Labosier is Affiliate Curator for the Archives and Fashionable Manuscripts Program within the Historical past of Medication Division on the Nationwide Library of Medication.

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