William Orr and The Canadian Phonetic Pioneer

By Laura Suchan, Executive Director

Recently, I found copies of the newsletter The Canadian Phonetic Pioneer on the virtual library Early Canadiana Online.  I was surprised to see the journal was published in Oshawa by William H. Orr, a familiar name to those of us who study Oshawa history as he was one of the owners of the Oshawa Vindicator newspaper.  Much of what we know about William Orr comes from newspaper articles written about him later in his life. Orr was born in Canada in 1836 and grew up on a farm until age 16 when he was apprenticed into the printing industry in Bowmanville.  He continued an active career in the newspaper industry for many years becoming Editor of the aforementioned Oshawa Vindicator and reporting for the New York Tribune as well as the Toronto Globe under George Brown.

1early canadiana online
Masthead for The Canadian Phonetic Pioneer

William Orr was an early advocate for Pittman Shorthand (he even named his son Cyrus Pittman) which was created in 1837.  Invented by Isaac Pitman, Pittman shorthand is a system by which symbols represent sounds rather than letters.  It is a type of phonography or sound writing which uses an alphabet composed of the simplest geometrical signs to represent the sounds of spoken words.  Shorthand was developed to meet the needs of news reporters who were required to take notes quickly.  Orr and other supporters of phonographic writing claimed it could be written six times as fast as ordinary longhand and was useful to many including young students, authors, clergymen, lawyers, physicians and authors.

1The Phonetic Alphabet September 1859, vol. 2, no. 3.jpg
The Phonetic Alphabet September 1859, vol. 2, no. 3

The Canadian Phonetic Pioneer started out as a monthly journal however by July 1861 it was published bi-monthly.  “Devoted to the spread of the writing, printing and spelling reform,” it was published at the Oshawa Vindicator office located on Simcoe Street. Subscriptions were 25¢ an issue, and in December 1858 Orr boasted there were 209 subscribers.  A subscriber list from September 1861 listed several names from Oshawa and Whitby including William and his wife Anna, Samuel Luke (Orr’s co-proprietor at the Oshawa Vindicator), William H. Rouse, teacher in Whitby, Thomas McKee, Principal Oshawa Central School and William Mccabe, Whitby, Principal Grammar School. Subscribers could enjoy articles touting the ‘Utility of Phonography’ (Rev. M. Wright of Massachusetts enthused “I would not take $1000 for what I know of the theory and practice of phonography”), ‘Rapid Writing’ ( Mr. Andrews of Glasgow Scotland claims he can write 271 words per minute using phonography), ‘Phonography in the Philadelphia High School’ and ‘Is Phonography What it Professes to be?’ The publication also features phonographic lessons, alphabet charts and advertising for a variety of books.

Canadiana Online has copies of The Canadian Phonetic Pioneer from the period July 1858 to September 1861.  I was unable to find any further information on The Pioneer so I do not know if this was the only period the publication was issued.  Perhaps Orr’s career as a journalist kept him from publishing The Pioneer after this period.  In 1863 Orr moved to Quebec and was one of seven reporters to record verbatim the 1864 Quebec City debates attended by George Etienne Carter, Sir John A. Macdonald and George Brown, which lead to Confederation  By 1865, Orr’s career as editor of the Oshawa Vindicator came to an end.  The last issue of the newspaper under his name was May 31, 1865.  By 1866 William Orr had started a new career as an insurance agent in Montreal, and it was reported that during this time he likely imported the first typewriter into Canada and was also the first business man to use female typists (1878).  Orr and his wife (Ann Marie nee Pedlar) moved their family to Toronto by 1881 where he continued working for Aetna Insurance Company.  In a 1921 article in the Canadian Statesman, Orr credited his long life to abstaining from alcohol and tobacco and embracing a vegetarian diet very early in life.  William Orr died in March 1927 and was laid to rest in Forest Lawn Mausoleum in Toronto.

The following resources were used:

The Canadian Phonetic Pioneer, Early Canadian Online

Mr W.H. Orr of Toronto, October 13, 1821;
http://vitacollections.ca/claringtonnews/2829604/page/2, The Canadian Statesman, pg.1

The Globe (1844-1936); Mar 5, 1927; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Globe and Mail page 16


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