Taking down every word on the record in a courtroom can be challenging for even the most adept stenographers. However, a handful of court reporters at the federal level still use shorthand and can take down testimony at more than 200 words a minute.
In Dallas County, Texas, court reporter Frank Howell sticks with pen and paper. Seventy-nine year old Howell is one of three court reporters in Texas who are active and licensed to record court proceedings with shorthand. This court reporter is considered a legal legend in Dallas. He started working as a court reporter in 1962 and filled in during part of the Jack Ruby trial.
This type of technology dates to the 1800s and is known as Gregg shorthand after its founder John Robert Gregg. Shorthand is a way of compressing language using your brain in real time. Almost every letter in Gregg represents a common word when written by itself. Nearly 100 of the most common English words can be transcribed in a single stroke.
The Gregg method of shorthand made its founder a tycoon in the first half of the 1900s, since his empire reached into almost every courthouse, business, and school. In addition to having a publishing empire, John Robert Gregg oversaw a national infrastructure of certification agencies, testing facilities, and business schools that endorsed the skills of all professional shorthand writers.
If you wanted to be a court reporter, you had to prove that you could write 225 words per minute with more than 98% accuracy. Executive secretaries needed a certificate from Gregg showing that they qualified at 150 words per minute.
As recently as the 1970s, every business school and most colleges offered Gregg-certified shorthand courses. However, the use of shorthand declined as the use of stenography machines rose in the 1940s and 1950s and displaced shorthand from the courtroom.
Long gone are the days of speed contests between the great court reporters. The last of the National Speed Contests took place in 1927, and the testimony category was conducted at 280 words a minute.