Innovation in Steno - [225 and Beyond - #007]

Shorthand has a long history, and this history can help us intuit where steno might be heading in the future and how we can guide it ourselves by our individual actions.

Written shorthand dates back to at least as old as the 4th century BCE, where we know it was used in Ancient Greece. Perhaps Aristotle was acquainted with it. Who knows, perhaps aspiring philosophers in the Lyceum took notes using this early shorthand method.

1830 marks the start of machine shorthand, with Karl Drais building the first shorthand machine in Germany. In 1913, a clever chap called Ward Stone Ireland made this machine, which we can recognise as the ancestor of the machine we all know and love:

Ireland Stenotype Shorthand Machine(Ward Stone Ireland) | Court ...

The layout of the keys has been so enduring, changing little in over 100 years, because it is built on the sure base of the frequency and sequence of the sounds in the English language. However, what has allowed steno to survive is its versatility.

It has evolved over time depending on the supporting technologies available, making the switch from paper to electronic notes when this became an option. This change, in turn, enabled realtime and captioning to come about. Now, stenographers can provide live captions at conferences, set up a realtime link so counsel in Hong Kong can follow a deposition being held in San Francisco, and even program using steno. Impressive.

Steno has done so well as a technology because the machine doesn’t put many constraints what you write on it—the input—and where your writing goes—the output. This means that innovation can happen on both the input and the output side of things.

More broadly, this mirrors the TCP/IP protocols that enabled the Internet’s rapid growth, as shown below.


Anyone interested in learning more about this can visit read this interesting Twitter thread: The Narrow Waist of the Internet.

A good example of innovation happening on the input side of steno is Mark Kislingbury’s method of using creative briefs and phrases to write short—and therefore fast.

On the output side, there are numerous innovations that have revolutionised steno and increased its reach. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • StreamText, which delivers realtime captions over the Internet;

  • Plover, which allows steno to be used instead of a QWERTY keyboard for day-to-day computer use;

  • Text on Top, which allows captions to be shown on top of a presentation or video, in view of all in attendance.

Another, perhaps more interesting class of innovation is when the output side influences the input side of the equation; for example, Case CATalyst—the output side—suggests a brief—which will be written on the input side—for a frequently occurring four-word company name. AccelerWriters, editing commands you can carry out from your writer, are a favourite example of mine that fall into this category. We can call this category “output-influenced input innovations.”

This gives us a good framework for thinking about the three categories of possible stenographic innovations:

  • input innovations,

  • output innovations,

  • and output-influenced input innovations.

In the next newsletter, I’ll explore this topic of innovation a little bit more deeply.

Elsewhere On The Web:

The Narrow Waist of the Internet - This tweetstorm from a few months ago was a big influence on this article; in fact, only when I was writing this article did the connection form in my mind.

Quote Of The Week:

There are more things that frighten us than injure us, and we suffer more in imagination than in reality — Seneca