In the past, before simple audio recording was easy and before computers were around in general, there was still a need in society to keep track of spoken word with precision. Of course, this can’t be done by writing words on paper. The average human can handwrite spy equipment for cell phones at somewhere between twenty and thirty words per minute, but transcribing live human speech often requires about 180 words per minute consistently. Such transcription was necessary, though, for things like court reporting, where every word spoken needs to be a matter of public record.
This problem was solved by stenography, which is a way of taking down language without writing with traditional writing systems. Shorthand lets stenographers write at upwards of 300 words per minute by using quick, easy strokes to denote different audible sounds. Then, when a transcript is needed, they look through their shorthand notes and use contextual clues to transform the written information into a transcript of the words spoken during the transcription session.
As typewriters came out, so did stenotype machines. Instead of using pencil strokes, stenotype machines use sets of key strokes called “chords”. Each English sound or syllable has a corresponding chord, typed by holding down multiple keys at once. Like a typewriter, the stenotype machine has a paper roll that advances whenever a chord is finished being typed. When the stenographer wants to create a transcript, he or she interprets the paper roll of stenography chords and writes or types what each transcript means.
Since there are a lot of different possible chord combinations in a stenotype, stenographers can get a bit more out of these machines than they can get out of shorthand. Developing new pencil strokes that can be executed quickly and are distinguishable from other strokes is difficult. Developing new stenography strokes, on the other hand, is a simple matter of pressing down a combination of keys that does not correspond to any normal word or sound in English. When a stenographer needs to transcribe audio that is particularly domain-specific, like court reporting, he or she can create new single strokes, called “briefs”, to represent longer words or phrases, like “ladies and gentlemen of the jury”.
Of course, typewriters are a bit out of date by now. Since audio recording became easier for consumers, realtime stenography has become somewhat less important. Anyone who can take extra time to transcribe a bunch of stenographic strokes can just take time instead to transcribe an audio recording. With computerized voice recognition getting better and better, even this transcription can be automated to some extent.
But being able to type at upwards of 200 words per minute is still useful. Automatic voice recognition still isn’t good enough to provide good realtime captioning service to the hard of hearing, for example. In this case, only modern stenography is capable of servicing those in need. Stenographers with the appropriate computer software can create realtime transcripts of spoken word, which isn’t possible with stenotype machines or shorthand, where the transcriber needs to write out a full transcript after the fact.
But, of course, anyone can benefit from being able to type that fast. Being able to write at essentially the speed of thought has a massive impact on your productivity.
The schooling involved in using this expensive proprietary software is rather expensive, though, so it isn’t a great option for everyone. Fortunately, for consumers with basic interest in stenography, super-fast typing speeds, and lower rates of repetitive strain injury, there is a free, open-source stenography solution called Plover. Plover runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux, and if you have an n-key rollover keyboard (which many mechanical keyboards are), you can use it to try stenography for yourself. This free solution to what used to be an expensive industry has some pretty awesome potential. Give it a try! You might be surprised at how much fun it is to type entire words with single keyboard strokes.