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The History of Court Reporting

(Source: National Court Reporters Association)

It's impossible to say when humankind first became inspired to make a record of our surroundings for others. And yet there is ample proof that ancient man was motivated to communicate - to find a way to get a message across in a more permanent form. Primitive cave drawings that depict animals being hunted with man-made weapons. Passageways leading down into the tombs of an Egyptian pharaoh chronicling his reign in both cursive symbols and elaborately painted scenes. Ancient Grecian urns whose painted panels tell stories about what life was like centuries ago.

Perhaps it's not even a stretch to say that prehistoric man "borrowed" the idea of shorthand from nature itself by learning to read and understand the meaning of markings all around him, such as the footprints of large flesh-eating animals or the position of the stars and sun in the sky. It's also plausible that those ancient cave drawings may have been a way of making a record of how to kill animals for food instead of an idle form of entertainment to pass away the time after dinner.

Our prehistoric predecessors may have been intellectually challenged by today's standards, but they grasped the significance of both recording and interpreting the symbols for fellow homo sapiens.

Fast-forward 20,000 years to history's first recorded shorthand reporter, Marcus Tullius Tiro. Freed from slavery, he became Cicero's secretary, and in the year 63 B.C., used a metal stylus to report a speech by Cato. Tiro's system was simple, consisting of abbreviations of well-known words. He omitted words that could easily be supplied from memory or by context. Knowing well the statesmen of his day, Tiro was impressed by the manner in which they repeated themselves, and he subsequently devised a system of shorthand by which a single sign stood for an entire sentence. In this way he could take down a political speech. If unfamiliar with the orator, he overcame the difficulty by calling in two of his pupils. After the address was delivered, the reporters then compared notes. This may have been a bit primitive, but it was the stenography of nearly 2,000 years ago. The ampersand (&) is the only sign that remains, but it has the same meaning in several hundred languages.

The first system of abbreviated writing invented for the use of English-speaking people was that of a monk named John of Tilbury, who published his treatise in 1180. The letters consisted of vertical lines differentiated from each other by short lateral strokes.

In 1588 Dr. Timothie Bright authored the first practical system of shorthand published in the English language. Dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I, Bright's system had no alphabet and consisted of more than 500 arbitrary characters that had to be memorised.

In 1620 Thomas Shelton published the first edition of his system, which was employed by Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist. After Pepys' death his diary had to be transcribed before it could be published.

It was not until 1772 that shorthand was officially recognised in England when Thomas Gurney was appointed shorthand writer to the government, and his system was largely used for reporting purposes in both Houses of Parliament. The celebrated trial of Warren Hastings in 1788 was reported in this system by Gurney's son Joseph. Author Charles Dickens reported sessions of Parliament using the Gurney system and even had a character in David Copperfield say that shorthand "was equal to the mastery of six languages."

In 1837, the same year Queen Victoria ascended the English throne, Isaac Pitman developed his system of phonetically based shorthand. Pitman's system was continually revised, not only by himself but by scores of others, and was the premier system of shorthand for decades. While its use declined in the United States because of the advent of Gregg shorthand, and then development of the shorthand machine, Pitman is still the predominant system of shorthand in England and all of the former British territories.

John Robert Gregg is renowned in the shorthand world for his adaptation and promulgation of the cursive, as opposed to the geometric, basis of shorthand writing. By 1888 Gregg had established his own shorthand school in England and had published a pamphlet, Light-Line Phonography: The Phonetic Handwriting, outlining his new system. Several years later he emigrated to the United States and opened a school in Boston, and then in Chicago. In 1893 the first American edition of Gregg shorthand was published. The success of the Gregg-educated contestants in a variety of speed contests led to nationwide recognition.

But the introduction of the shorthand machine eventually ended the Gregg system's popularity as the system of choice for America's shorthand reporters. Before the Industrial Age shifted into high gear, technically minded entrepreneurs were already turning their drawing board ideas into real working machines in factories all over America. The shorthand pen was about to step aside for the shorthand machine.

In 1879 Miles Bartholomew, an official court reporter, received a patent on the first American shorthand machine. Four years later he further refined his "Type-Writing Machine," which applied the principle of "alteration of hands," but still wrote only a letter at a stroke.

Ward Stone Ireland's efforts made a greater contribution to the advancement of machine shorthand than that of any other inventor. His high-speed keyboard, still in use today, had a minimum number of keys, thus reducing or eliminating the awkward reaching for keys not directly under the fingers. In fact, Ireland's first production model Stenotype machine enabled inexperienced operators to attain and often break speed championship records.

On the technological front, as the shorthand machine continued to evolve in design, it became apparent that something needed to be done to speed up the conversion of shorthand notes into final transcript form. In the 1950s a solution came about as a result of research conducted by the military and IBM. The two worked to develop a computerised system that could translate foreign languages into English. This experience led IBM to consider the use of similar software to translate shorthand symbols into English.

Ultimately, IBM halted work on this project since there was too small a market for this technology. In the early 1970s, a small group of reporters began to urge NSRA to take a greater role in the development and use of computer-aided transcription.

CAT (computer assisted transcription) changed everything. Finally, a usable system was developing: creation of an individual dictionary for each reporter; utilisation of a modified stenotype machine as part of the equipment package, creating a magnetic tape; a minicomputer configuration to read the data from the tape into the computer, which contained the dictionary and subdictionaries; display of the English translation onto a screen; insertion of corrections via the cathode ray tube; and printout of the transcript by high-speed line printer.

The court reporting industry has adapted to a great many technological changes in only the last few decades. Much of the credit goes to the profession's innovative approach to finding and mastering new applications for this specialised skill. Reporters can offer improved services to their clients or enter entirely new areas of practice, such as broadcast captioning, realtime in the classroom and reporting to the Internet.

No doubt reporting has changed a great deal since the days of ancient cave drawings and the debates on the Senate floor in Rome. The history of court reporting points toward a future filled with new opportunities for a profession that - regardless of technology's contribution - will always require the human touch.

Reporting in Ireland