A Brief History of Transcription
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A Brief History of Transcription

Sunlight glimmers into the arched window of a spire illuminating the balding head of a monk robed in crimson, dutifully copying Latin from one parchment to the next with a delicate plume. This is the scribe of our history books, preserving sacred texts through the whole of the dark ages. Thanks to the scribe, we know that transcription has existed in some form for thousands of years, writing and rewriting the story of mankind.The first transcriptionists - scribes - engraved hieroglyphicsand hieratic scripts. As early as 3400 BCE (Before Common Era), the ancient Egyptian scribe left us clues. He was a member of the royal court, exempt from taxation and physical labor. The scribe would train for four to five years in hieroglyphics and hieratic scripts, his efforts culminating in government administration and commerce, contracts and inventories. So important was the scribe, he even had his own hieroglyph, Gardiner sign Y3, which represents his equipment and translates as “writing.”

By 3300 BCE, male children of high social class in the Fertile Crescent had learned to engrave Akkadian and Sumerian language onto tablets in cuneiform script. They recorded contracts, discourse and literature, including the legendary Gilgamesh Epic, creating an impressive legacy of one of our earliest civilizations. While in the 19th century scholars believed that writing originated in Mesopotamia, modern scholars believe that systems of writing developed independently in several locations in the ancient world, including China and Mesoamerica.

The first professional organization of Hebrew scribes began with Ezra during the reign of Simon the Just. They were called soferim – those who know how to write. Soferim were members of the royal court who also copied sacred texts for the education of the Jewish masses. They were considered keepers of wisdom, frequently acting as interpreters and teachers. In ancient Rome, the work of the scribe became more specialized. Scribae occupied the office of public notary, a prestigious working-class occupation. They transcribed interviews and took dictation and kept official records. Their work was distinguished from that of copyists, who merely reproduced existing documents. Scribae could read and write political discourse, which gave them an advantage in seeking office which in turn gave them greater social mobility. A famous example is the poet Horace, son of a scriba whose talents allowed him to achieve higher social rank. During the Dark Ages, the scribes of Europe and the Middle East safeguarded mankind’s accumulated philosophical, literary and scientific knowledge. Arab scribes often worked outdoors, shaded by palms with tiles weighting their parchment, preserving the works of Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, Archimedes and Hippocrates for the western world. In this period, the ideal skill set for scribes included knowledge of the Latin language, good eyesight and penmanship and the ability to read the writing of other scribes whose work was being copied.

The invention of the printing press in 1439 led to a decline in the need for scribes. In 1439, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and the need for scribes to copy documents began its decline. The mass production of texts led to an explosion in literacy and the development of English language transcription shortcuts, such as contractions and superscripts. Though the need for copyists decreased, the increase in commerce and literacy during the Renaissance increased both the supply of and demand for scribes. Additionally, decorative manuscripts of classical works became increasingly popular among the very wealthy, so the artistic merits of a scribe’s work won them accolades in cultural centers. In the late 16th century, the scribe’s profession became more specialized with the development of a formal system of shorthand. Though various forms of shorthand have come and gone in many languages over several millennia, modern English language shorthand was developed by British physician Timothy Bright in 1588 and refined by stenographer Thomas Shelton early in the 17th century.

Seven years after the invention of the typewriter, there were around 2,000 female stenographers. When the typewriter was invented in 1873, here were only seven female stenographers in the United States. By 1880, there were 2,000 female stenographers, representing 40 percent of all typists. According to the U.S. census, by 1910, women comprised 81% of the typing workforce. The advent of the female typist is due, at least in part, to the fact that Remington, the first company to mass-produce the typewriter sold its first models on sewing machine platforms, decorated with flowers.

The reign of the typewriter came to an end in the 1980s with the development of word processing. Today’s scribe is the transcriptionist, valued for an entirely different skill set than his or her predecessors. Modern transcriptionists work with a variety of digital audio and video files to transcribe a variety of artifacts – from interviews to focus groups, speeches to medical dictation. In our increasingly global and digital business environment, transcriptionists are highly valued for their speed, efficiency, and accuracy.

Transcriptionists are the modern, word-processing equivalent of yesterday's scribes. The scribe of the 21st century is quite often a woman with quick hands, illuminated by a glowing screen, perched over an ergonomic keyboard in her home office, wearing headphones to block ambient noise. She communicates through email and Skype, receiving assignments and returning transcripts without ever leaving the house. She may not have her own hieroglyph, and she’s definitely not a member of the royal court, exempt from taxes or labor. But just like the scribes that preceded her, she preserves the great stories of academia, medical science, law, and technology.