by Horace Webb, HM
The system was born in a Chicago courtroom in the early forties. Its father was a pen shorthand reporter and its mother frustration. I had been writing shorthand in the courts for about two years. But I frequently ran into situations where some double-tongued lawyer or glib witness simply outran me.
"There must be a faster, more accurate way to do this work."
Though not outwardly apparent, the strain on the reporter increases markedly and shorthand notes begin to disintegrate when the talking speed or terminology difficulty increases. Nonreporters assume the tough part of the reporter's job is over when the last shorthand note is written. Not so. Until the very recent years, shorthand reporters typically dictated their notes for transcription into typewritten form, roughly two hours dictating for every hour spent in court.
I was struck with the thought: "Since the reporter repeats the entire proceeding with his voice when he dictates his shorthand notes, why not dictate them in the courtroom? Repeat each word into a microphone just as it is spoken! Repeat it with my voice instead of with a pen." The idea was born and I was elated at the prospect.
My subsequent experiments proved that the reporter would have the "talking" speed to keep up with the fastest speaker, and there would be no need to redictate notes. Furthermore, the reporter would not have to spend years learning to write shorthand in the first place, and his "notes" could be transcribed now or later by a competent typist. All I needed was a simple device to "confine" or "silence" the voice so that others in the courtroom would not be disturbed.
My first "Stenomask" was a cigar box. It didn't silence my voice very well and the recording was totally unintelligible. It wasn't the microphone. Held in the open, outside the box, it made a good recording. Place it back in the box and everything turned to mumbo-jumbo.
The second "Stenomask" was a number two tomato can, but the results were the same, maybe worse. Bottles, cans, boxes; round, square and oblong; flat, thick and thin; made of wood, metal, cloth and paper, the results were uniformly lousy.
I took the problem to an acoustical engineer and that learned man solved it immediately. He said it couldn't be done. And he explained why in technical & electronic terms. It had something to do with reverberating sound waves impinging on the element's diaphragm. Fortunately, I didn't understand what he was talking about, so I went back to my experiments and soon discovered the solution.
I found that with the mike at the far end of the box, the recording was at its worst. As the mike was brought closer to my mouth, the quality of recording improved, until it was almost intelligible when the mike practically touched my lips. Further experiments showed that filling the lower portion of the box with rags or cotton improved intelligibility still more.
Now I understood the theory of "reverberating sound waves." I had to let them strike the microphone once, fresh from the lips, then try to dampen or kill them. Don't let them bounce off the walls and come back to strike the microphone again and again. I wondered if sound waves could be so weakened by using a tortuous path that they hardly would be audible. The theory worked. My next mask was remarkably quiet and still made an adequate recording.
I found a rubber facepiece, originally designed for the Air Force; it was comfortable and made an excellent seal. Next, I discovered a "Royal Chef" coffee pot on sale at a large department store. No "spout," just the right shape. After throwing away the insides, removing the handle, shaping it slightly with a grinding wheel, drilling the necessary holes and fitting a sanitary "disposable tortuous path" inside, it accepted the rubber facepiece and performed quite admirably.
Confident of my new ability, I summarily announced to my employer "Pappy" Ward, of Ward & Paul, that henceforth I would no longer write shorthand, but would do all my reporting with the mask. He just as summarily responded, "You ain't gonna use that ‘horn' around here. If you think I'm going to send you up to the U.S. Senate with that coffee pot on your head, you've got another think a-comin." The reaction was the same at other reporting offices. I was crestfallen, but not whipped.
Reporting in D.C. was highly "seasonal." When Congress was in full swing, there were days when it was hazardous for anyone to walk past a reporting office with a pen and notebook in hand. He might be sent off to a hearing room, to at least give the appearance of being a reporter. "All right," I reasoned. "I'll just sit tight for four or five months until the busy season arrives. Then they'll have to use me."