“How do you use that thing, anyway?” Most freelance court reporters have heard that question…
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You have probably seen court reporters using steno machines on TV and in movies. No one except court reporters know how these little machines work, but most don’t know their history. I’ve written up the history of the court reporter machine so everyone will know.
Court Reporter Machine History
A long, long time ago, before court reporter 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.
Like any kind of cursive handwriting, Gregg shorthand could be hard for anyone to read except for the person who wrote it. Since court 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 it. So court reporters were usually the ones tasked with transforming their own shorthand into typewritten transcripts.
Fortunately, in 1877, the steno machine had been invented by a man named Miles Bartholomew. Court reporters gradually became interested in learning how to operate this steno machine. It was quite difficult, but they learned.
The steno machine contained “machine shorthand” as opposed to Gregg shorthand. Instead of squiggly lines, each key on the steno machine contained letters of the alphabet. So now, while learning the steno machine, court reporters also had to learn how to read machine shorthand rather than Gregg shorthand.
After they had mastered these skills, life as a court reporter significantly improved. This is true for both official court reporters (those who work as employees in courtrooms) and freelance court reporters (those who work for themselves doing depositions and other non-courtroom work).
It was less taxing to type on a steno machine rather than write everything out by hand. Court reporters decided to continue calling what they do writing rather than typing, though, because in the earliest days of court reporting history shorthand was indeed written, not typed.
Originally, and actually until very recently, all court reporter 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. On that long rectangular strip of paper were the words that had been spoken during the testimony, written in machine shorthand.
(Fun Fact – machine shorthand is also called steno.)
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 machine shorthand (also called steno) except for court reporters.
Now, because their steno notes no longer consisted of nearly indecipherable handwritten squiggly lines but actual letters of the alphabet written by machine, court reporters had the option of hiring someone who could help them type their notes of testimony into transcripts. These people were called note readers.
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 court reporter 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, for both court reporters and note readers, though. Now anyone who turned steno notes into typewritten transcripts had to have computer skills.
Some note readers learned how to use the computer and even more people who’d never been note readers learned how to transcribe testimony in this way. Everyone who began transforming machine shorthand notes into typewritten transcripts on a computer were given the name of scopist. If you’ve never heard of a scopist, you are not alone. Almost no one knows what a freelance scopist is.
Now are you one of the few people in the world who know the history of the steno machine! Freelance scopists actually have a really interesting history too. Learn the history of the scopist here.
Sabina Lohr is a lifelong freelancer turned entrepreneur who created World of Freelancers to help others discover how to work for themselves online and live the freelance lifestyle. She’s always really enjoyed the freedom that freelancing brings, including several years on and off of working online while traveling and living abroad.