Technology Changes Everything – The Evolution of Transcription

Technology has seeped into every facet of our lives. Smart home devices, smart cars, whole libraries of audio and video content, and the entirety of human knowledge accessible from a device that fits neatly in our pockets. Transcription is no exception — there seems to be no stopping the change. From its roots in Ancient Egypt to the global industry that it is today, we’ll take a look at how technology has changed transcription. 

From Clay Tablets to Papyrus 

It can be interesting to look back at how we used to do things as a species. Transcription as a craft can be traced back to the 3rd century BCE when Egyptians developed hieroglyphs and wrote on clay or stone tablets — the cutting edge of writing materials at that time. Scribing was an elevated, respected position; students dedicated years to perfecting their craft. Not many people could do it, and accomplished scribes often sat at the sides of kings and pharaohs to write down their mandates.

Culture advanced, and soon, our ancestors wrote on papyrus, then parchment. Monarchs and other forms of government ruled with scribes ready to write down their words. Other types of scribes, like Sofers from Jewish populations, became invaluable to historical and religious rites and traditions.

One thing’s for sure: transcription remained a vital part of civilization throughout all the advancements.

The Beginning of Mechanization

Soon came woodblock printing from the Tang Dynasty in China, humanity’s first step to automated, mass-produced printing. Then, in the 15th century, the printing press came. It was a massive, unwieldy machine, better suited for mass production than transcription, but it was a game-changer. 

The (then) most significant innovation for transcription came in fits and starts. In 1575, Italian printmaker Francesco Rampazetto invented the scrittura tattile, or so scholars believe, as all accounts were based on second-hand evidence. Henry Mill patented a crude but similar machine in 1714. For nearly 300 years, inventors worldwide recognized the need for a portable machine that could potentially type faster than a human could write. They developed their ideas, filed patents, and pushed the boundaries of technology. 

This particular machine’s first and most successful type came in 1867 when Christopher Latham Sholes developed the first commercially viable typewriter. The widespread use of the machine prompted the emergence of careers dedicated to its usage. Typists became a profession. Performance varied, but professional typists on the machine could reach 60 to 90 words per minute. 

Speed was of the essence in transcription, and soon, a smaller, faster machine was developed. The stenotype — known initially as the shorthand machine — used shorthand (abbreviated) writing to reach speeds up to 300 words per minute. It was a brilliant piece of technology, allowing stenographers to type just as fast (sometimes faster) as humans could speak. 

It does, however, have one major caveat: the stenotype required the study of shorthand, which is practically a new language in and of itself. This created a minimum skill requirement, which can have a long learning curve, especially when compared to the widespread appeal of a full-sized typewriter where words can be typed out in the user’s native language as is.

A Slight Stagnation

Transcription reached its most efficient form with the coming of typewriters and stenotypes. Or, at least, that’s how it looked like for nearly two centuries. Not much changed in terms of technology, but further skills and techniques were developed. Stenographers worked around the clock in literary, legal, and judicial circles. Meanwhile, typewriting or keyboarding courses became a thing as the typewriter became more reliable and, thus, ubiquitous and essential. Rows upon rows of men and (more predominantly) women practiced touch typing in schools, utilizing muscle memory and all ten digits in their hands to increase typing speed as much as possible. Transcription remained a staple industry, employed by monarchies, governments, and businesses worldwide.

From the time of the typewriter’s widespread use, transcriptionists needed to be physically present during the event or discussion they were transcribing. Secretaries were ever-present in boardroom meetings and other business activities with typewriters or stenotypes dragged around on wheeled tables. Medical scribes followed doctors and other health professionals around to take down their patient notes and orders. Otherwise, they’d have to decipher a doctor’s handwriting to transcribe their evaluations. Everything had to be done in real-time.

The tail-end of the 19th century brought another innovation that would impact transcription: audio recording. These mechanical devices stored sound and allowed users to play them back at a later time. This became quite a game-changer for the industry; it meant that meetings and discussions could be recorded and then transcribed. Everybody from politicians to business magnates to doctors jumped at the opportunity to record their voices for posterity and future transcription.

Still, the process of transcribing remained the same: a speaker or dictator would verbally relay their thoughts, a transcriptionist would write or type them out, the document would be handed to the dictator for error correction, and the transcriptionist would redo any marked issues. Formatting was done manually or on pre-printed documents in cases of typewriters. Rinse and repeat for nearly two hundred years. 

The Rise of Digitalization

If the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (or any other natural disaster for that matter) taught us anything, it’s how heavily we rely on technology for everything. Our advancement — and every industry we’ve created and developed — is now measured by how fast innovation comes. 

Human innovation can be seen as a microcosm of evolution as we’re not content to let things stay as they are. We continuously strive for better, more efficient technologies, and anything that cannot adapt to our ever-changing needs is left behind. The typewriter was king of word processing machines, but that would change soon enough.

Computing machines weren’t new concepts in the 19th century. Tally sticks, abacuses, and similar manual devices had existed for thousands of years, all of which were used to assist with arithmetic tasks. 

In 1822, Charles Babbage introduced the concept of a programmable computing device that could be used for astronomical and mathematical calculations. He named his first computer the “Difference Engine” but soon expanded upon it with the “Analytical Engine.” However, the project was too far ahead of its time, and parts for the machine were complex and expensive to produce, so Babbage’s vision didn’t see full completion. Then, in 1945, Alan Turing worked with Great Britain’s National Physical Laboratory to develop the first-ever electronic stored-program digital computer. 

Early computers were room-sized behemoths, but many people saw their potential and worked to make them more compact over the decades. Their success led to the development of word-processing machines and early-model computers. However, the new technologies offered minimal advantages to transcriptionists. Indeed, they had more functionality than typewriters, with the ease of error correction, the possibility of duplicate printing, and the storage of finished transcripts. 

However, these functions came at disproportionally extravagant prices, with early-model computers like the HP 3000 Series 64 going for as much as $181,100. Not exactly a reasonable amount for transcriptionists. The typewriter, meanwhile, offered the same functionality as it always had, and widespread use has led to price reductions. 

But computers were still in their infancy, and their underlying technology will be the foundation of a modern necessity. 

Interconnectivity and Modern Computers

It wasn’t until the development of more advanced computers and the Internet that transcription technology — and literally everything else — took off. 

Word-processing programs became more sophisticated, offering more functionality, better UI, What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get (WYSIWYG) printing, and workflow interfaces like copy-paste and text manipulation functions. The 1970s and 80s saw the proliferation of computers in business and other industries. Necessity breeds innovation, and popular companies like Microsoft, Xerox, and IBM raced to provide typists and transcriptionists with more and more options. Technological advancements accelerated. Then came the concept of the Internet, a globe-spanning network of computers that allowed data transfer from anywhere, which saw increasing use during the 80s and 90s. 

Today, modern, Internet-connected computers might not be a big deal, so much so that younger generations are indifferent to their wonders. But for those who lived through those years, the development of technology seemed to move at breakneck speeds. It went from 56 kilobits-per-second dial-up connections with its iconic grating and buzzing “handshake” sounds to amazing gigabit speeds in almost no time at all.

The rest, as they say, is history. 

The State of Transcription Today

Although the industry still has challenges, transcription has never been easier. Transcriptionists today rely on equipment like foot pedals, computers, the internet, and programs like Microsoft Word or Express Scribe to get their job done as fast as possible. 

The internet makes it possible to do remote transcription work. Word-processing programs make error-checking and formatting a breeze. Voice or video recordings can be uploaded practically anywhere and viewed with the same ease. Faster download speeds allow instant file transfers from clients to transcribers and back. Automated transcription is now a thing, although such programs aren’t as accurate as human-generated transcripts. 

Medical transcriptionists can pull up pictures of x-rays or scanned intake notes from an online server in seconds and create a complete medical record note from home. Online platforms host reports and can interface with EMR or other systems to make the notes available whenever and wherever dictators want. And now smartphone apps that support recording, storing, and managing files from anywhere allow even more on-the-go access for dictators. 

What was once a nine-to-five job, done in person and with clunky machinery, is now a sprawling, global, 24-7 industry that shows no sign of stopping. Who knows what the next five or ten years will bring?

Ditto Transcripts is a Denver, Colorado-based transcription company that provides fast, accurate, and reliable transcription services for individuals and companies of all sizes. Call (720) 287-3710 today for a free quote, and ask about our free five-day trial.

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