From New World Encyclopedia

A stenotype or shorthand machine is a specialized chorded keyboard or typewriter used by stenographers for shorthand use. A trained court reporter or closed captioner can write speeds of approximately 225 words per minute at very high accuracy. Many users of this machine can even reach 300 words per minute. As technology has advanced, such as with the advent of computers, the stenotype has also advanced, incorporating the new technology to improve its efficiency.

The use of stenotypes allows stenographers to provide real-time transcription both in the courtroom and in public settings. The use of a stenotype machine allows the reporter to keep up with the flow of speech so that no words are missed. As such, the stenotype is an example of technology in service for the good of society, permitting quick and accurate transcripts that aid in legal proceedings or in providing a public service. As technology, such as voice recognition software, has been developed, the stenotype machine with a person operating a keyboard may become obsolete. However, until such time as such computerized processing becomes more reliable than human beings, stenotypy will continue to depend on a human component.

Development of the Stenotype Machine

Stenotypy is a system which uses a machine with a keyboard, to produce shorthand transcripts of spoken material. This allows the operator, such as a court reporter, to write at speeds of between 200 and 300 words per minute.

The first stenotype machine, which printed on a punched paper strip, was built in 1830 by Karl Drais. An American stenotype machine was patented in 1879 by Miles M. Bartholomew, who is often referred to as the "Father of the Stenograph." A French version was created by Marc Grandjean in 1909.

Near the turn of the twentieth century, and American inventor named George Kerr Anderson patented a number of ideas that had important characteristics found in modern stenograph machines: they printed English characters, the keyboards represented the most common letters, and there was no common striking point for the keys. One of Anderson's shorthand typewriters was used to report President McKinley's inaugural address.

One of the most important breakthroughs for machine shorthand came from inventor Ward Stone Ireland. Ireland's machine was designed to use the fewest possible strokes, and helped operators reach new records in speed. Ireland formed the Universal Stenotype Company, and did well until after World War I, when the company's involvement in munitions manufacturing caused financial ruin and forced the company to close down.

Progress of the stenotype machine continued when M. H. Wright developed an improved version in the late 1930s, called the "Stenograph." After World War II, the stenotype business boomed, and improvements continued to create better design and efficiency.

With the introduction of computers, the stenotype machine went through significant changes. Most modern stenotype keyboards have more in common with computers than they do with typewriters. Most contain microprocessors, and many allow sensitivity adjustments for each individual key. They translate stenotype to English internally using user-specific dictionaries, and most have LCD screens. They typically store a full day's work in non-volatile memory of some type, such as floppy diskette, hard drive, non-volatile RAM, or flash card. These factors influence the price, along with economies of scale, as there are only a few thousand stenotype keyboards sold each year. Top-end models can sell for thousands of dollars.

Keyboard layout

The keyboard of a stenotype machine looks more like a compact piano than a regular alphanumeric keyboard. Multiple keys are pressed simultaneously (known as "chording") to spell out whole syllables, words, and phrases with a single hand motion. This system makes real time transcription practical for court reporting and live closed captioning.

This is the keyboard layout of the American stenotype machine:

Stenotype Machine Keyboard Layout

In "home position," the fingers of the left hand rest along the gap between the two main rows of keys to the left of the asterisk (little finger on the "S" to forefinger on the "H" and "R"). These fingers are used to generate initial consonants (the beginning of a word). The fingers of the right hand lie in the corresponding position to the right of the asterisk (forefinger on "FR" to little finger on "TS"), and are used for final consonants. The thumbs produce the vowels.

The system is roughly phonetic, e.g. the word "cat" would be written by a single stroke or chord comprising the initial K, the vowel A, and the final T.

To enter a number, a user presses the number bar at the top of the keyboard at the same time as the other keys, much like the shift key on a QWERTY keyboard. The illustration shows which lettered keys correspond to which digits. Numbers can be chorded just as letters can, and read from left to right across the keyboard. It is possible to write 137 in one stroke by pressing the number bar along with SP-P, but it takes three separate strokes to write 731. Many court reporters and stenocaptioners write out numbers phonetically instead of using the number bar.

There are various ways to combine letters to make different sounds; different court reporters use different styles, or "theories," in their work. Although most writing is similar, many stenographers cannot read another's work, as it is highly personalized. Individual court reporters, for example, may develop their own ways of writing commonly used phrases, such as "ladies and gentlemen of the jury."

Some court reporters use scopists to translate and edit their work. A scopist is a person who is trained in the phonetic language, English punctuation, and usually in legal formatting. They are especially helpful when a court reporter is working so much that they do not have time to edit their own work. Both scopists and proofreaders work closely with the court reporter to ensure an accurate transcript. The use of scopists is less common than it used to be, as modern stenotype machines usually incorporate computers, some of which can translate machine shorthand to English as the stenographer types. Stenographers often have their own, customized machines that have been individualized to recognize their own personal shorthand and preferences.


Steno paper used to be the standard for recording transcripts. A roll of narrow paper tape would record everything the stenographer typed. Modern stenotype machines generally record transcripts to a data storage medium like floppy disk or flash drives.

The following example shows how steno paper coming out of the machine represents an English sentence. Notice that key combinations can have different meanings depending on context. In the first stroke of the word "example," the "PL" combination refers to the letter M. In the second stroke of the word, that same key combination refers to the letters P and L.

English text rendered in steno shorthand.

The initial "Z" is also commonly chorded by the entire initial bank, STKPWHR, in order to avoid thousands of potential conflicts.


The vast majority of stenographers work in the field of court reporting. Others work outside the courtroom in depositions and other situations that require an official legal transcript, such as arbitration hearings or other formal proceedings. Stenographers often provide real-time transcription for the closed captioning of television programs, as well as public events, religious services, webcasts, and educational services.

A court reporter's responsibility is to transcribe spoken or recorded speech into written form, typically using a stenotype or stenomask to produce official transcripts of court hearings, depositions and other official proceedings. The use of a stenotype machine allows the reporter to keep up with the flow of speech so that no words are missed. In the United States, the court reporter is often also a notary public who is authorized to administer oaths to witnesses, and who certifies that her or his transcript of the proceedings is a verbatim account of what was said.


It typically takes two to four years to learn the basic skills to become a court reporter. The minimum speed needed to become certified is 225 words per minute, which is the requisite speed for approval by the American court reporters' organization, the National Court Reporters Association. Upon completion of formal training, court reporters engage in continuous practice in order to improve their skills. Most employers require various certifications for their court reporters. A reporter may obtain additional certifications that demonstrate higher levels of competency such as Certified Real-time Reporter (CRR).

Court reporters must have excellent command of the language being spoken, an attention to detail, and the ability to focus for long periods at a time. The most highly skilled court reporters can provide transcription in real time and have significant earning potential.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • "History of Machine Shorthand" National Court Reporters Association. Retrieved January 4, 2008.
  • Knapp, Mary H. and Robert W. McCormick. 1998. The Complete Court Reporter's Handbook. Prentice Hall. ISBN 013571365X
  • McCormick, Robert W. and Carolee Freer. July 1997. REALWRITE/realtime Computerized Shorthand Writing System. Prentice Hall.
  • Northern Alberta Institute. 1991. Court Reporting Compatible Machine Shorthand D. Northern Alberta Institute. ISBN 0921466005

External links

All links retrieved February 9, 2023.


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