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The History of the Court Reporter

A long, long time ago, before steno machines and computers were invented, court reporters wrote down testimony in legal proceedings with a method called Gregg shorthand, using pen and paper. This method of writing in abbreviated form was invented by an Irishman named John Robert Gregg in 1888.

Gregg shorthand has almost ceased to exist now, but the people who remember it often refer to it as the “squiggly lines.” Since the people writing down testimony were writing in shorthand, they were called shorthand reporters. This term is still sometimes used today.


History of the Court Reporter - Notebook with Gregg shorthand in left column and plain English in right column

Gregg Shorthand (and plain English)

Like any kind of cursive handwriting, Gregg shorthand could be hard for anyone to read except for the person who wrote it. Since testimony was written at the sometimes incredibly high speeds at which people talk, it was all the more difficult for anyone else to read it, much less transcribe. So court reporters were usually the ones tasked with transforming their own shorthand into typewritten transcripts.

Then, in 1877, the steno machine was invented by a man named Miles Bartholomew.  Court reporters now had to spend time learning how to operate this steno machine. And they also had to learn how to read steno notes rather than Gregg shorthand.  After they had mastered these skills, life as a court reporter significantly improved.

It was less taxing to write testimony onto a machine rather than write it out by hand.  And now court reporters could hire someone to help them type this testimony into transcripts.  Court reporters today still call what they do writing instead of typing because in the earliest days of court reporting, shorthand was indeed written, not typed.

Court reporters' steno machine with paper tray

Originally, and actually until very recently, all steno machines had a tray sticking out of the front of them in which sat a thick rectangular block of paper that fed automatically through the machine as the reporter wrote down testimony. You can still buy used steno machines like this today.  On that long rectangular strip of paper were the words that had been spoken during the testimony, not in plain English, but in what is called steno.

(Fun Fact – steno is also called machine shorthand)

Unlike Gregg shorthand, which was commonly taught in school and was used by secretaries and people in various other jobs, no one in the world was taught how to write or read steno except for court reporters.

History of the Court Reporter - Machine Shorthand

Machine Shorthand

After a court reporter was finished with a job, they would either type their steno notes into a transcript themselves or hand the task over to a note reader.

 Note readers would take the very long (sometimes miles long) strips of paper onto which the court reporter had typed the testimony in steno and carefully from scratch type every single word in English onto a typewriter. Pencil erasers and correction fluid were used to correct mistakes. Carbon paper was used to make copies.  What if they made an error that couldn’t be corrected?  They would have no choice but to type that whole page all over again. O.M.G.

Fortunately, life for the court reporter once again changed for the better, in a big way, with the invention of the computer. Now reporters could insert disks into their steno machines, and the testimony would be recorded onto both the disk and the steno paper. Then after the end of the testimony, they’d pop those disks into a desktop computer and transcribe faster and easier than ever before.

This easier method came with a new challenge, though. Now court reporters needed someone who not only could read steno but who also had computer skills.

 And this is when scopists first appeared on the court reporting scene.


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This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. Wow, it’s kind of cool to learn that court reporters use to spend time learning how to operate a steno machine when it was first invented. I’m kind of interested to learn if learning this machine started becoming a requirement to be a court reporter. At the very least, it seems like a useful skill the reporters would have wanted to learn, especially for fast-paced court sessions.

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