Stenography is like a different language, and stenographers have their own device to write in that language: a stenotype machine. Each stenographer develops his or her own way of taking down words at a rapid pace and recording the shorthand with these machines, and there are many instruments on the market that allow them to do so.
Career stenographer Mario Rodriguez collects the very tools of his trade and displayed his vast collection in a recent interview with the News-Press, a collection which includes machines more than a century old, as well as the one he uses today. Rodriguez runs the Falls Church-based M.A.R. Reporting Group, LLC, the largest independently-owned court reporting and legal support agency in Northern Virginia, and without these machines his reporters could not do their jobs.
Rodriguez first felt the urge to start his own collection after a visit to the National Court Reporters Association museum.
“I got envious, I think, when I would see their collection,” Rodriguez said, “and I thought, ‘I want my own collection!'”
He knew he couldn’t acquire an assortment of machines that would stack up to the museum’s extensive collection, but he still wanted to try. He now has several of the devices, and for the stenotype machines he doesn’t have yet, he keeps framed photographs and blurbs about every important stenotype machine since 1879.
Many of his pieces were eBay finds, and some would come with extras like how-to books on stenography. Included with his first buy, a stenotype machine made in 1911, was a letter of reference for a young woman named Molly Turpin. The 1911 Ireland Stenotype Shorthand Machine was one of the very first to have the standard typing keyboard that stenographers use today. Etched on the machine is a motto which Rodriguez has always liked: “labor less and accomplish more.”
Stenotype machines don’t have a standard QWERTY keyboard; they have 22 keys that are mixed and matched to represent sounds. Rodriguez demonstrated for the News-Press that to write the word “cat,” he would spell it phonetically as “kat.” It may seem peculiar to those more familiar with a computer keyboard, but Rodriguez says it’s all about creating the least amount of keystrokes possible, because court reporters have to keep up with who is speaking.
And they do. To give the News-Press an idea of how quickly he could type, Rodriguez transcribed his conversation verbatim with this reporter, and showed that the computer easily decoded the stenotype automatically into standard English.
“We create our own dictionary to make things go quicker,” said Rodriguez. “Since I’ve been writing for years, I’ve built up probably over 100,000 words and phrases.”
To be a qualified court reporter, the required standard is to type 225 words per minute for five minutes with 98 percent accuracy, and Rodriguez says the more talent a reporter has, the more likely it is that they’ll be able to take on assignments that transcribing in real time, like court reporting or taking down commentary at sporting events for closed captioning broadcasts.
His job involves more than just taking down words, though. There’s been speculation that court reporters will be out of a job when computers can record and type the same as any human, and Rodriguez disagrees.
“People keep saying that voice recognition on computers will take over since I graduated 25 years ago,” said Rodriguez. “Let me tell you, a computer doesn’t know the difference between sight, site and cite. We do. It’s not going to happen anytime soon.”
He also mentioned that computers cannot give their observations, which he is called upon to do in his line of work. Court reporters offer an unbiased opinion in the courtroom, sometimes keeping track of each sides’ allotted time to speak so as to ensure an equitable distribution.
“The thing I love about court reporting, it’s always different every day,” Rodriguez said. “You never know what you’re going to do the next day, and you meet so many different people. You meet the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich. You meet the most intelligent and the unintelligent. You meet very honest and dishonest people. Victims and perpetrators. It’s a great job, and I love it.”