Transcription has existed for thousands of years as an important tool used to convey oral language in written form. Early civilisations such as the Australian Aboriginal people used stones and caves to record stories and important events, painting images as a means to assist a storyteller to remember his story, and as a learning tool. Even more transitory media such as trees and leaves have been used by ancient peoples to record stories either pictorially or in writing.
As human civilisation advanced, more sophisticated methods were developed for transcribing oral information. In Mesopotamia, widely considered to be the birthplace of writing and civilisation, a new and powerful occupation emerged – that of the scribes. Mesopotamian scribes were well respected, holding a high-ranking position in society, and were responsible for many important functions in government, the legal system, economy and religion. They effectively held a monopoly of knowledge in a society where literacy was restricted to those who had been trained from birth to act in an administrative role.
In Ancient Egypt, where writing appeared two centuries later around 3150 BCE, scribes were members of the royal court, exempt from conscription and taxes, and were held in very high esteem. They learned how to read and write complex hieroglyphic and hieratic scripts, writing on papyrus with reed brushes dipped in ink. There is evidence that the ancient Egyptians developed a writing system that used phonetics and signs to represent consonants, thus devising an effective way to record spoken sounds. In this way scribes were probably the first formal transcriptionists. Unfortunately, due to the perishable nature of papyrus much of their early work has disappeared, however through their stories on the stone walls of pyramids and tombs we can learn much about what life was like in ancient Egypt.
During the Middle Ages, one of the most significant transcription-related events was the invention of the printing press in 1439 by Johannes Gutenberg. The popularity of the printing press led to mass production of literature, which in turn brought literacy into the mainstream. As such, much of the importance and social status of the early scribes was lost. The explosion in literacy also resulted in the development of transcription shortcuts such as contractions. Although there was less work available for copyists, the vibrant period of commerce and trade during the Renaissance era ensured the continued demand for scribes.
Further specialisation of the profession of the scribe occurred via the development of shorthand, a method of writing in symbolic form to increase speed and brevity. Many different systems of shorthand have existed over centuries, however British physician Timothie Bright is credited as having developed modern English language shorthand in 1588 and this was further refined by stenographer Thomas Shelton in the early 17th century. Shorthand allowed those who were well trained in the system to write as quickly as people spoke.
By the 18th century, attempts were being made to create a “machine for transcribing letters” that could print characters onto paper for each key stroke made by a typist. In 1714, the first attempt was made to create and patent this type of machine later known as a typewriter, however it wasn’t until the late 1860s that a typewriter that was faster than handwriting was invented, revolutionising the speed and efficiency of transcription. Over the next century the use of typewriters led to an influx in the number of women employed in the workforce, with typing classes becoming popular in the late 19th century. The humble typewriter was thus instrumental in helping women enter paid work for the first time.
During the 1980s technological advances in word processing quickly overtook the typewriter. Transcripts no longer needed to be retyped from scratch to correct mistakes and a wide range of font types and sizes became available. Documents could easily be saved, stored, revised, printed and even shared with others, at the touch of a few buttons. As digital technology developed further, electronic audio and video files could be downloaded to a transcriptionist’s personal computer, either in an office or home environment, and transcribed directly into a word processing program. Such advancements have enabled today’s transcriptionists to send and receive these files electronically, without ever leaving the comfort of home!
Although our tools and technologies have evolved over time, transcription still plays an essential role in ensuring that oral information is accurately recorded, stored and made reusable. Transcriptionists are today’s modern scribes, highly prized for their typing speed, language skills and accuracy.