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What is a Stenograph Machine?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A stenograph or stenotype machine is a specially designed machine which is used for taking shorthand. Many court reporters use stenograph machines to quickly and accurately record testimony, and the devices are also used by students to take notes, and closed captioners who want to be able to quickly write captions for live broadcasts. A high quality stenograph machine is capable of networking with a computer and a microphone array, and such machines can be extremely expensive.

Stenography is a special type of shorthand which operates phonetically. This means that a stenographic transcript is actually unique to the person who generated it, as each person hears and interprets sounds slightly differently. Typically, a stenograph machine is used to transcribe information such as testimony, and then the stenotype clerk reads over the transcript and generates a full version which can be read by anyone.

Early stenotype machines date back to at least mid 1830s, when inventors realized the potential value and applications of a phonetic transcription service. In 1938, the Stenograph Company was founded in Illinois to create a wide range of stenotype products. Technically, the correct generic term for such a machine is “stenotype,” meaning that it allows the user to type in stenographic shorthand, but due to trademark dilution, “stenograph machine” is considered widely acceptable, much to the irritation of the Stenograph Company.

At first glance, a stenograph machine looks nothing like a regular keyboard. There are only 25 keys which are used to key out coded words, numbers, phrases, and sounds. Many stenographers develop complex dictionaries for their work, using coded letter combinations to stand for commonly used phrases, for example. The extremely abbreviated shorthand technique allows the typist to reach speeds of up to 300 words per minute, which can be extremely useful during heated court testimony, which can exceed 230 words per minute.

Often, multiple keys are pressed at once, a stenographic technique called "chording." To the uninitiated, the resulting stenographic transcript can look like complete garble, with random strings of letters spaced at seemingly arbitrary intervals along the page.

Traditional stenotype machines output the typed material onto a paper transcript. Modern machines usually come with internal memory storage, allowing the user to transfer the transcript into a computer program which will interpret the shorthand and generate a transcript. For things like closed captioning on live television, the stenograph machine is attached directly to a computer so that it generates a transcript as the typist works.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a EasyTechJunkie researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By John57 — On Jun 05, 2011

Years ago when I was in high school, they offered shorthand classes. I don't know if this is used much today, but I have always been interested in being a court stenographer. Because I am a fast typist, and was very good at shorthand dictation, I thought about pursuing a career as a court reporter.

I think the training is a 2-3 year program, but know that you must be very accurate and fast. I think it would be fascinating to be in the court room and record everything being said on a steno machine. Some transcripts can become very long, so it is nice to have the computer programs to read the shorthand. I am sure that must be a big time saver for the court reporters.

By andee — On Jun 02, 2011

The modern stenography machines have sure made things a little easier for the stenographer with the internal memory storage capability. Even so, this is a highly skilled job that takes intensive training.

There is a local business college in my community that offers court reporting and closed caption degrees. Both of these jobs use a stenograph machine, and have a big learning curve. Many people that start the programs don't realize how much work is involved. They are both very interesting careers, and you can make a great income, but it does take time and commitment to be efficient at using a stenograph machine.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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