Twenty-first Century: The Dickens Code
Despite Carlton and Co's prodigious efforts, many of Dickens's shorthand manuscripts remained undeciphered until the twenty-first century and Arthur Stone's notebook completely unexplored. The Dickens Code project was set up with the aim of decoding this material for the first time in collaboration with members of the public, known as the 'Dickens Decoders'.
There are a number of similarities and some differences between Carlton and Co’s decoding efforts in the twentieth century, and the work of the Dickens Decoders in 2021-2023. Shorthand transcription remains a time-consuming process, requiring both a knowledge of the system and creative problem solving. We are fortunate to have access to a greater range of Dickens’s shorthand material and up to twenty decoders working on the shorthand, as well as the support of academic experts, which has helped us to contextualise proposed solutions, identify who the source of the stories in Stone's notebooks might be, and whether the texts are improvised or dictated from manuscripts. We are also using faster media, exchanging emails rather than letters, and spreadsheets instead of tracing paper. This more connected brand of 'social stenography' has led to a wider range of creative solutions and some major breakthroughs.
You can explore the transcripts produced via our twenty-first century form of ‘social stenography’ here, and visit the ‘Roll of Honour’ that credits the achievements of our Decoders, by visiting our website.
Looking ahead, a team of Informaticians at the University of Leicester is also developing a prototype neural network to assist with deciphering, supported by the Leicester Institute for Advanced Studies.
Interestingly, some of the challenges encountered are the same as those experienced by human decoders, such as the similarity between different symbols, the possibility of alternative solutions, and the messiness of Dickens’s handwriting. Other challenges are distinct, particularly the small size of Dickens’s shorthand corpus in comparison with the vast sea of data on which machine learning algorithms are usually trained. While work continues in this area, it is the human decoders who have been responsible for the breakthroughs so far.
Thanks to the efforts of all involved, we are finding a way through the 'forest of difficulty', as David Copperfield puts it. Yet aspects of the 'savage stenographic mystery' remain and the more people are involved, the more quickly we will be able to unravel it. As Miss Miggs exclaims in Barnaby Rudge (1841) 'Oh, gracious, here's mysteries!'