A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

How does a court reporter machine work?

Dear Straight Dope:

I was watching yet another thrilling courtroom drama the other day, and I noticed once again the little machine that the court reporter uses. It looks like an adding machine, and it certainly isn't a standard typewriter. Not having spent much time in court myself (not yet, anyway) I have never been able to check this out personally. What is this thing?

You're not alone, Jonathan. That Judge Judy really gets my heart pumping too.

The machine to which you refer is known as a stenotype machine. It looks something like a small typewriter, but it has only 22 keys, including numerals. By touching one or more keys, the reporter captures the sounds of words in a phonetic code with each line of characters representing one sound. A skilled shorthand reporter can handle sustained speech at the rate of four words per second; doing the math, that yields a whopping 240 words per minute, which is substantially faster than most people speak.

As you might expect, this skill is not something one picks up overnight. The Professional Court Reporting College in Dallas, Texas, has a training program that is estimated at 2,700 class hours. The skilled shorthand reporter mentioned above could record 38,880,000 words in that period of time, but there's probably a learning curve that brings the actual number of words reported down substantially during the actual training time. The college notes that a few students have graduated in less than two years, but three-plus years is more typical. (They don't mention if the longer stay is due to lesser ability or the necessity of bussing tables at the local Denny's to earn tuition money).

Once you've completed the course, you're ready to be licensed by the Court Reporters State Certification Board (if you stay in Texas, that is; other states, presumably, have similar bureaucracies). To be eligible for the state examination, given four times a year in Austin, a student must be able to write at least 225 words per minute at 95% - 98% accuracy and pass all academic courses. Apparently the different state certification boards have different speeds at which you must be able to write, but none is higher than 225wpm.

In case a career in court reporting bores you, you might want to look into something called "high speed text entry." This is a new professional field which uses a shorthand machine to get information into a computer database faster and more efficiently than the keyboard used by traditional word processors. And if that doesn't interest you either, maybe you should just stick to Judge Judy.

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