Thursday, April 2, 2009

A classic keyboard I'd never seen before

The mother of one of my son's kindergarten classmates is a court recorder. With her in mind, I'd intended to include a mention of the shorthand keyboard in my earlier keyboard post, but it slipped my mind.

That turned out to be a good thing. When I mentioned this to her before school the other day, she took note and the very next day brought me an old stenotype shorthand machine that she'd had sitting around her garage. I got to take a look at it - and also at a textbook discussing the theory of how to use it.

Wow, this thing is cool.

Things I have learned:

1. The keys have no symbols on them. At all. My guess would be that this is because they don't want any reason for the recorder to look at the keyboard.

2. The keyboard has fewer keys. It has two rows of four to be covered by the fingers of the left hand, two rows of four to be covered by the fingers of the right hand, and a single pair of keys in between those two which are not letter symbols but asterisks. Below that are two keys to be accessed by the left thumb, and two keys to be accessed by the right thumb.

3. It is designed so the operator can type entire syllables at once - by pressing multiple keys at the same time. The left fingers do the consonants before the vowel; the right fingers do the consonants after the vowel (yes, there are repeats). The thumbs do the vowels in between.

4. It speaks its own language. This is a terrific example of humans adapting to the requirements of a machine, rather than the machine adapting to them. I guessed, and my friend confirmed, that it would take a semester to learn the theory behind how to enter all kinds of words on this thing. There is a key combination that must be used for the period, for example. Vowels tend to be entered phonetically rather than in accordance with English wacky spelling. This does not count the years of practice to raise your speed.

But of course the result is that these expert people can write down what they hear at an astonishing rate. On the machine my friend lent me, the letters are typed in ink on a paper tape about two inches wide, which used to be "read" and decoded by a computer. She tells me that nowadays these machines have direct USB connections to the interpreting computer, so the shorthand gets reinterpreted into English without the need for the intermediate step.

Cool technology. And it saves some trees.

Having made transcriptions of taped speech myself, I have nothing but the deepest respect for anyone who has the skills to be a court recorder. If you ever get the chance to check one of these machines out, or to type on it, I highly recommend you take it.


  1. Wow! I had no idea there was, so to speak, a shorthand typewriter. I thought stenographers wrote with pen and ink on stenopads.

    The ribbon or tape the machine types on sounds like the sort of paper feed used by my mother's old fashoned adding machine. That was manual BTW no electricity needed. What about these steno machines?

  2. Yes, Catreona, this one advances manually and automatically with each keystroke (or combination thereof). Given that the paper tape has no width to speak of, there's no need for a carriage return.

  3. Oh, it's horizontal. Mum's adding machine paper ran virtically, so that's what I was envisioning.

    is this machine electric (plug into the wall socket) or manual?