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The History of the Scopist

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The court reporting profession came into being shortly after the invention of Gregg shorthand in 1888. The scoping profession did not come into being until long after the invention of the computer, about 100 years later. So the history of the freelance scopist is short. Also, it has never been told. So here it is.

The History of the Freelance Scopist

Pinterest image woman's hand on laptop with cup of cappuchino and text the fun history of the work from home scopist career

Although court reporters are the keepers of the record in legal matters, no one kept a record of who was the exact person who decided that someone besides court reporters should learn how to transcribe their transcripts on computers.

Previously in history, people called note readers would often produce transcripts for court reporters. They were trained by court reporters to read their steno notes. Steno notes are hard to read, especially when you are not the one who wrote them, so there were not many people who could do this.

History of the Scopist - steno notes
This says: “Question: State your name for the record.
Answer: My name is Lynn Kelley.”

Those who were able to learn steno would take the court reporter’s notes, read them word by word and type them letter by letter onto a typewriter. They used rubber erasers and white correction fluid to correct mistakes. They used carbon paper to make copies. If they made too many mistakes on one sheet of paper, they had to throw it away and type the whole page all over again. This was, just as it sounds, extremely difficult.

You would think upon the invention of the computer it would be easier to produce transcripts than on a typewriter. And it is. However, back in the day, very few people knew how to operate computers. So now, in addition to a scarcity of people who knew how to read court reporters’ steno notes, there was a dearth of people who knew how to use computers. Finding – or training – someone to both read steno and use a computer? Very hard.

To meet the need, some court reporting students became scopists while in school. Some former court reporters became scopists. And then along came the pioneering people who became scopists from scratch.

People way back in the 1980’s who were able to develop this extremely rare skill set of reading steno and using computers were pretty special.

Scopist is a Funny Word, Isn’t It?

The reason scopists are called scopists is because the job they do is called scoping. How transcribing transcripts on a computer came to be called scoping is rather comical.

When court reporting first became computerized, transcripts were transcribed on desktop computers with flickering phosphorescent green screens displaying about 80 characters per line, with only a few lines visible on the screen at once. People who worked on these computers apparently thought the screens looked like oscilloscopes (a laboratory instrument which displays and analyzes the waveform of electronic signals). And they felt like they were reading the screen through a periscope (an instrument used in submarines to see above water.)

History of the Scopist - Green Screen Computer
Can you imagine?

So scoping is called scoping because the people who produced transcripts on flickering green computer screens felt like they were underwater, struggling to decode wavy lines through a periscope, “scoping” their way through what appeared before their eyes.

Thankfully, scoping today is done above water and is a lot healthier on your eyes.

Scopists today work on desktops or laptops, using special court reporting software. Most court reporters now do real time reporting, with the words they are typing into their steno machines being transmitted immediately onto their laptops in front of them. In fact, court reporters will often spend part of the breaks they take during the day to clean up transcripts a bit by filling in correct spellings, words that didn’t translate correctly, etc.  This makes their transcripts much easier and quicker for scopists to scope.

Most court reporters also use their court reporting software to record an audio backup as they write down testimony.  The audio quality sometimes is not ideal, though, as the acoustics of a room may be poor, people may be mumbling, people may be coughing or otherwise making noise that drowns out the spoken words. So scopists still should learn steno.

Still, the effectiveness of audio in addition to the court reporter’s ability to scan through transcripts before they turn them over to scopists makes the job of a scopist easier than ever before.

So – what was true at the beginning of time is true still today: there are not many court reporters and scopists in the world. And no one in the world can read steno except for court reporters and scopists. Now, that is pretty cool.

Now that you know the history of the scopist, discover the history of the court reporter and their steno machines 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.

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