The history of transcription as a form of documentation dates back as early as 3400 BCE where scribes were in high demand and kings called on them to record history and laws.
Many know about the hieroglyphics that covered the walls in Egyptian tombs and pyramids. Without them, we would not have such clear evidence of what went on during that era. We now know this to be one of the first forms of transcription.
Some Egyptian scribes were considered royal officials because of their craft. One such royal official was Djehuty, who served as a minister around 1475 B.C. He was the supervisor of the state treasury and artisans and also served as a scribe. Djehuty’s tomb was recently opened to the public after 3500 years, where you can see the first ever inscribed scenes from the Book of the Dead.
In Egypt, scribes would go to school to learn how to read and write hieroglyphics and hieratic scripts. It wasn’t an easy task and students spent lots of time practicing the signs onto old pieces of stone or papyrus with reed brushes dipped in ink. It could take four to five years for someone to complete their training and become a scribe.
The history of transcription as a part of religion
As religions developed around the world, scribes who could preserve oral traditions came into higher demand. In Judaism scribes were called Sofers. The Bible Odyssey explains how the job of the scribe developed within the Judaic population. The article states that “as the Israelites’ identity and beliefs started to come into sharper relief in the centuries leading up to the Babylonian Exile, Jewish scribes began to invest more and more time in defining themselves and their religious tradition over and against neighboring cultures.” Merchants are responsible for most of the oral history Sofers took note of. They would trade stories with commoners as well as governmental figures.
Other countries took advantage of scribes in slightly different ways. In China, people turned to diviners for answers to questions of the supernatural. Diviners eventually became scribes who recorded their answers on tortoise shells and bamboo until paper was invented in the Common Era.
Across the sea, philosophers like Aristotle and Plato captivated audiences with their forward thinking. To ensure their ideas would pass on from generation to generation, scribes would sit under shaded palm trees writing what these forward thinkers spoke of.
The Renaissance and transcription
The birth of the Renaissance brought with it more jobs for scribes. Literacy grew and among the wealthy, there was a demand for classic works. In 1439, the invention of the printing press made it so texts could be mass-produced. Even with this new invention, the number of scribes needed during this period grew. With new ways of producing texts, a scribe’s role kept evolving. In the late 16th century, scribes shifted towards being specialized in shorthand, which enabled them to go even faster.
Shorthand is an abbreviated method that increased the speed of transcription. The process in which you write shorthand is called stenography. People used shorthand to write down their thoughts or take discrete notes of a conversation they had. Notable people who used shorthand include Samuel Pepys, Isaac Newton, and Charles Dickens.
In an essay published in the London Review of Books, author Leah Price gives a brief history of how stenography came to be. “Isaac Pitman, creator of the wildly successful ‘Stenographic Soundhand’ method still used today, made arguments that don’t sound so different from the tweeting techno-evangelists of our age. When people correspond by shorthand, he declared ‘friendships grow six times as fast as under the withering blighting influence of the moon of longhand.’ ’’ Shorthand became the method or standard people used for transcription.
Typewriters, and this is where things start to really change at this point
In 1867, the first practical typewriter was invented by an American, Christopher Latham Sholes. A year later, Sholes patented his second model that, while still bulky and crude, documented information far faster than anyone could with a pen. In 1873, Scholes signed a contract with the gunsmith E. Remington and Sons. Which was the start of bringing standard typewriters to market. With it came stenographers that kept keys clicking ‘round the clock.
Before the invention of the typewriter, there were a total of seven female stenographers in the United States. Female stenographers represented 40% of all typists. The trend continued to climb and by 1910, 81% of those in the typing workforce were women. Women exiting the home and entering the workforce has greatly contributed to the evolution of the typewriter and stenography itself.
Technology and the history of transcription as it evolved by leaps and bounds starting in the 80s
A significant change came in the 1980s when computers and word processing programs became available to the public. In a previous blog post, Technology Changes Everything – The Evolution of Transcription, we dove into how the transition from typewriters to computers didn’t change much in the way audio and documents were transcribed until the internet evolved.
Today, people are recording more and more video and audio content. Keeping transcription services in high demand. Businesses and those in the medical and legal fields rely on transcription to keep things on time. To be sure of quality and accuracy, many reach out to teams of trained transcriptionists who pride themselves on a 99.9% accuracy rate.
Transcription continues to be the best way to preserve audio and the great stories of mankind for years to come.