The History of Transcription – From Hieroglyphics to Online Transcription

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A Transcription Journey Through Time

Online transcription is the modern, cost-effective way to document sound files. But this contemporary method of documenting data is a far cry from transcription’s humble beginnings. Transcription is considered one of the planet’s oldest forms of documentation. That is why it is a skill that has travelled a fascinating path through the annals of time. It has persevered through consecutive eras because of its enormous value.

Transcription is considered the gold standard in recording important information. It provides a safety net for businesses. Transcription also furthers the world’s understanding of ground-breaking research. It shines a light on the complex and obscure. In our History of Transcription, we will explore the very beginnings of an ancient profession that has stood the test of time.

In the Beginning: Ancient History of Transcription

Turn the clock back to a time before the typewriter. In fact, before Moses and Christ. Think of ancient Pharaohs and the Romans. These advanced civilisations are the root of transcription. Words etched into stone may spring to mind but, in the beginning, scribes used hieroglyphics as a form of documentation.

Many people wonder who these scribes were and why documentation was of such value so many centuries ago. Jump in a Tardis and set the time to the mid-3000s. Transport yourself to ancient Egypt. Can you see them – boys being taught to read and write? This training helped them obtain jobs as scribes. They wrote on papyrus paper made from plants to record information, using signs and symbols as well as basic words.

Scribes were not just adept in recording important information. They documented everything, from mundane, everyday life to major events. In fact, they were the news reporters in a time before newspapers or the television. Medical information was highly prized. History detectives have discovered one or two female scribes – and they were doctors.

Being able to transcribe important information was a valued skill in ancient Rome. Scribes were employed as public notaries or clerks. The highest rank was afforded to public scribes. They were paid by the state, making transcription an excellent career choice. Later, the Romans would find a way to cut costs. They forced slaves to work as scribes.

Transcription developed through the middle of the century. It wasn’t long before children in Egypt were taught to transcribe languages. They carved transcriptions into stone tablets, paying attention to the detail of ancient cultures and traditions.

Sound a bit prehistoric? You may be surprised to know that quill pens, made from bird feathers, were used even earlier. Perhaps as early as 2,000BC. Sections of the Dead Sea Scrolls are known to have been written with an early form of pen and ink.

Even before the printing press was invented, those with money could enjoy the pleasure of reading. In the Dark Ages, books were painstakingly crafted by scribes – often in monastery scriptoriums. Scribes were forced to work in complete silence. They painstakingly measured page layouts before transcribing text. An illustrator would then take charge of the work. He would add designs and luxurious embellishments. Because of the time and skill needed to create books, they were not accessible to most people. Many gathered dust in stately homes, educational institutions and the monasteries.

The Dawn of the Printing Press

German entrepreneur Johann Gutenberg had no interest in books or transcription. In the 1400s, he was just a man who wanted to make money. His aim was to mass produce a product that would make him rich. He didn’t care what that product was, so long as it was popular. Fate was to play an important role in his eventual destiny as one of the world’s most important inventors.

Gutenberg’s vision was to create a cheap product everyone would want. He was a former employee of a coin mint. It dawned on him that, if he could use cut blocks within a machine, he could make the printing process a lot faster. It didn’t escape his sharp business mind that this invention would mean text could be produced in huge quantities – and fast. He must have smelled the money before the ink.

Up until then, a primitive form of printing allowed a limited flow of text to be reproduced. This earlier form of printing used letters cut into blocks. Just like children today use stamper sets for fun, these wooden imprints were then dipped in ink and pressed onto paper.

Gutenberg’s revolutionary invention used metal blocks. Less porous than wood and more durable, it delivered clean, crisp printing. His system was also versatile. It was known as the Movable Type Machine because the positioning of letters could be switched around to create new words and sentences. He must have thanked God for his good fortune – the first book he reproduced was the Bible! Praise the Lord.

With the invention of a machine that could reproduce text to form printed documentation, scribes probably thought transcription had gone to the dogs. Not on your nelly!

Shorthand: Transcription is Reborn

Forget the name Pitman for a minute. Shorthand dates back 63BC. Yes, to a time before hieroglyphics and stone tablets. Based on longhand script, the system was devised by Roman stenographer and freedman Marcus Tullius Tiro. He invented what became known as the ‘notae Tironianae’. A Latin shorthand system, it included a shorthand dictionary, and was used for around a thousand years.

Fast forward to the 1800s. While a number of shorthand systems succeeded that of Tiro’s, none were to have quite the same impact as phonetician, Sir Isaac Pitman’s. He was invited to devise a shorthand system in 1837 and more than rose to the occasion. Already familiar with older shorthand versions, he set about creating a system that correlated sounds with symbols. A style of shorthand that could be written and understood quickly.

Pitman is the father of advanced shorthand techniques. He was the first to introduce a system that included the thickness of strokes to denote voicing. Voiced consonants are drawn with heavier lines than their unvoiced counterparts. He used straight lines and quarter-circle marks, as well as variable orientation to create transcriptions that could keep pace with the spoken word and provide an accurate record.

Thanks to his brother, Benjamin, Pitman’s shorthand was exported to America. It was used to transcribe court proceedings against those charged with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Another brother, Jacob, introduced Pitman shorthand to Australia. It quickly became a global phenomenon and the ‘gold standard’ in transcription.

Pitman’s shorthand, the most popular in the UK since 1966, has survived the test of time because it works. This phonetic system of quickly transcribing information uses symbols that represent sound rather than letters. Still widely used, it is accessible in several formats, including Pitman’s New Era and Pitman’s 2000.

Typewriters Change the World

You may think the typewriter is as ancient as Gutenberg’s printing press. In fact, it is a fairly modern invention. First attempts were commercially unsuccessful. Then, in 1868, Americans Christopher Latham Sholes, Frank Haven Hall, Carlos Glidden and Samuel W. Soule hit the jackpot. The inventors used the machinist Matthias Schwalbach to manufacture the first working prototype of what became the world first ‘proper’ typewriter.

The design was patented and sold for $12,000 to Densmore and Yost. They then commercialised the product, entering into a manufacturing agreement with sewing machine specialists E Remington and Sons. The final result was the Sholes and Glidden Typewriter.

Remington quickly recognised the potential and got in on the act. It started producing its own typewriters in 1873. It introduced the QWERTY keyboard layout, now the universal standard for all keyboards. While the typewriter did a lot for transcription, it also presented a golden opportunity for women.

Thanks to the typewriter, the world of work was opened up. For the first time, women used a machine in mass numbers and were able to carve out rewarding, lifelong careers. Of course, they transcribed literally billions and billions of documents between them along the way.

Enter the Word Processor

Just when secretaries, newspaper reporters and other typewriter users were tiring of correction fluid and carbon paper, technology moved on again. The huge success of the typewriter encouraged innovation. The product evolved until the first electronic typewriter was patented in 1872 – before most people had access to electric. The first model was not available until the late 1920s, probably as a result of that.

IBM, still a giant in new technology today, brought a more useable version to the market in the 1930s. The Electromatic increased typing speeds and became an instant hit. Every business who meant business had to have one. The early success of the machine was quickly followed by the invention of the automatic typewriter, which was developed by M Shultz. This machine was the first to store information that could be retrieved at a later date.

It used holes punched into rolls of paper to record text in a code. The code could then be used to activate the typewriter. It ensured that transcription followed the same pattern as the original typing. This revolutionary machine meant circulars, marketing material and other documents could be quickly reproduced, without the need for each document to be typed individually or with the use of the dreaded carbon copy. It reduced the need for typesetting and printing.

Transcription moved with the times again when paper rolls were replaced by the Flexowriter, which used paper tape. This machine was the first to introduce a deletion key. IBM was back on the scene in 1961 with its Selectric typewriter. It introduced super-fast printing with a revolving typeball. Then, in 1964, IBM surpassed itself with the MT/ST, marketed as a word processor! It combined the typeball with a magnetic tape drive. As well as offering re-useable storage it paved the way for the iconic floppy disk.

Online Transcription in the Digital Age

Computers are now part of everyday life. You don’t have to be a secretary, writer or even work to use one. Mobile technology and online security have opened up the floodgates for the next chapter in the history of transcription. The demands of modern business mean that online transcription is not just needed, but convenient. In an era when litigation can bring entire empires crashing down, transcription is not just a good idea, it is a necessity.

Whether you run a busy HR department, are conducting research, need an accurate record of insolvency or inquest hearings, transcription matters. It is as relevant today as it was when small boys in Egypt learnt how to record the events happening around them.

Today, transcription is used to document sound files recorded at everything from disciplinary hearings to what is said in police interview rooms. It is a source of evidence following covert operations and helps businesses detect fraud and theft. Whether you run a pharmaceutical company or an insurance business, transcription plays an important role.

We don’t pretend to have been around since the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, we have been providing an error-free transcription service to clients across the UK for more than 20 years. If you are interested in what transcription can do for your business, visit our services.

Here you will discover how modern technology is helping people just like you send and receive files using military grade encryption. Now that’s something the Roman’s didn’t think of. For up-to-date information on online transcription services, Alphabet should be your first port of call. For a friendly, fast, professional service that values confidentiality, this is a transcription service that has moved with the times. It harnesses the benefits of digital technology to make transcription accessible, affordable and of the highest quality.

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