How did "old fashoned" Court recorders work?

I have seen in many old TV and Movies, the operaton of a court recording machine, havng only a few finger paddles… around ten or so. How did these things work, seemingly recording a transcript in real tme of the subtlety of evidence and testomony involved in court proceedngs?

slaughter my ignorance

Stenotype. Basically, the stenographer presses one or more keys at a time that correspond to single words or syllables. Not every letter is on the keyboard, so some combinations of consonants are appropriated to stand for other ones; “TP”, for example, stands for “F”. The result (scroll down to “Example” near the bottom) looks nothing like written English, but there’s enough info there to reconstruct a proper transcript.

By the way, they are still used (they now upload directly to a word document, instead of spitting out printed slips). The minimum speed for court reporting is 225 words per minute!

My Mom was a court stenographer for 30-ish years, roughly the 1960s-80s. The wiki article linked above explains the machine pretty well.

There were standard techniques for how to key the sounds & syllables, but each reporter developed their own shortcuts for phrases & words commonly used in their Court or names or buzzwords which occurred repeatedly in a particular trial.

After the day’s recording work was done, the stenographer would read the steno machine writing (the “notes”) into a dictating tape recorder. This was done in a highly enunciated & stilted style devoid of emotion or tempo. All punctuation & formatting was also spoken. This was called “dictating the notes.”

These tapes would be given to a transcriber, a professional typist who would listen to the tapes & create the actual written transcript on paper with (usually) a Selectric. This was “transcribing the record.”

The tapes & transcript pages would be given back to the stenographer who would then simultaneously re-read the original steno paper notes and the typed transcript looking for errors or omissions, as well as typos. Any changes would be re-dictated on fresh tape & the pages retyped by the transcriber.

Eventually the product would be finished & filed with the Court Clerk.

So for each hour of testimony in Court there was 2 to 4 hours spent producing the finished goods.
Perhaps surprisingly, much of what went on in Court was only taken in steno; those notes were never transcribed but were retained on file by the stenographer. A human-readable transcript was only prepared if one or another counsel requested it. And that would be paid for separately by the plaintiff or defendant.
The OP mentioned “… of the subtlety of evidence and testomony …”. Not really. The words are all that survive. There is no nuance, no indication of the hectoring tone, the resignation, or the contrition. “Damn you Perry Mason! I admit it; I did it!” reads the same as “My name is John Smith. I’m an officer of the Hooterville Police Department.”
Other tidbits …

Mom made well over $100K / year back in the early 70s. Part of that was her county salary to take the notes, but WAG 60+% of that was the overtime charges for dictating, transcribing, & proofing a written record. The downside was the 80 hour work weeks which kicked her butt eventually.
Couple last things … Do NOT get in a dispute with Mom about who said what when around the dinner table yesterday. She KNEW what was said. And don’t challenge her to a friendly game of Scrabble either.

Right! To the death it is! :stuck_out_tongue:

That’s a darn funny-looking suicide note you left. She would eat you alive. :wink:

**Rhiannon8404 **has a friend who works as a reporter for the US Congress, and she still uses the same “old fashioned” process that **LSLGuy **describes.

We still have court reporters here using similar machines. Most them are computerized nowadays, though, and “translate” the steno abbreviations into readable text. In some high-profile cases, daily transcripts are paid for by, and provided to, one or both of the parties. Much easier now with computerization. Real-time TV closed-captioning is done with similar systems, I believe.

I was once involved in a mock trial when a local court-reporting school got the judge’s permission to let a couple dozen of their students practice during a trial. All those keys being pressed at the same time made it sound like a rain forest.

Damn! Does court reporting still pay that much? I assume it’d be less than half that for a normal week, but even 30k back in the 70s would translate to a lot in today’s terms (especially considering you don’t need a degree for it… I don’t think, anyway ).

My father was a hearings officer (workmen’s comp) back in the 70’s and 80’s, and he also said that the court reporters could make lots of money, more than he made a lot of the time. He also said that they would farm out the actual typing at a much lower rate per hour, because in his jurisdiction the court reporters were paid in a way that they didn’t get OT for producing the finished record, just so much per hour of the hearing (that was supposed to cover time and cost of transcription).
Roddy

Thanks all…
Now I am wondering how someone can put “frendly” and “Scrabble Game” in the same sentence and still expect it to have any meaning! Where I come from Scrabble is occaisionally played to the death, but that’s only because we like to go easy on the new comers…Once you are experienced, it is played “To the death, with the vctor’s reserved rights of urinating onto the mound of the loser’s ashes”

Thanks again

There’s a hilarious passage in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities where an Assistant D.A. is mentally bitching about how the court reporter makes more money than himself and even more than the judge. It describes this stenographer as dressed in the finest expensive clothes, well-groomed, aristocratic looking, whereas everyone else in the courtroom is a schlub. It’s hilarious.

LOL. Here it is -

We hired someone to do live closed captioning at a political convention last year, which is similar to court reporting. She used similar machinery, a chorded keyboard connected to a laptop computer, fed to a projector which displayed the text.

We paid $105 per hour, or $1.75 per minute. And that was a discounted rate; I think the normal was $120/hour ($2/minute). She also offered to sell us a transcript, the price for that was $4 per page, I think. (That seemed to be pretty high, since it was nothing more than a text file recording of the captioning – no additional work at all.)

Yes. Looking quickly at the website for New York State Courts, a certified Court Reporter with two years experience, makes $73,000 – more than a Court Attorney with the same experience, and you don’t even need a Bachelor’s degree! High school diploma+appropriate certification (typical cert program is 2 yrs)+ 2 yrs experience.

I don’t have the links to hand right now, but I looked it up in the Department of Labor and it is considered to be a growing field at the moment with excellent opportunities for employment. I know that our court system is not hiring ANYONE right now – except court reporters.

What does this have to do with court reporting?

Typically, our court reporters use machines like those shown in the Wiki article. They’re more computerized these days, costing upwards of $1K. While they do print out a transcript on paper tape, they also use a floppy disk in the side (the now-old-fashioned 3.5" disks). The machine apparently records in some proprietary format, which can be read by specialized software on a standard desktop or laptop computer.

When they have to prepare a transcript, for an appeal or somesuch, they’ll usually just use the computer disk, and only go to the paper tape if there’s a problem with the file. Failing all of that, they also record the proceedings on cassette tapes.

By the way, the judges announce at the beginning of trial that there’s no “read that back to us, please”. The systems they use make that inconvenient. Jurors are told that testimony can only be read back if there’s a disagreement during deliberations about a very specific point of testimony, as in, one juror thought a witness had said “a green car” while another thought she’d said “a blue car”.

See the final bit of my post #4 then posts 5 & 6.

See post #4, last paragraph, LSLGuy’s comments about his mom the court reporter.

About the high pay …

You go to a private vo-tech school to learn the skill, then take a state certification exam to be able to practice.

Part of the reason the pay is so good is it’s a very hard skill to learn. The wash-out rate from the schools is very high. So the supply of reporters is naturally limited becasue most of us simply can’t be trained to do the work; we lack whatever weird aptitude it takes.

I don’t follow the trade now but given the licensing is state-level, I’d bet some states don’t accept outsiders too readily which also contributes to short supply.