Recent renovation of a downtown Chicago office building has unearthed a cache of secret stenotype paper rolls from the 1930s that was hidden within a wall.
The dozen or so stenotype rolls that were found by construction crews probably would have ended up in a dumpster if it wasn't for a curious hero in the building, who recognized the stenotype paper and salvaged them. Being a lawyer, he asked a court reporter to transcribe them and what they found was quite interesting. These were no ordinary court recordings. These were the secret messages sent between two accomplices who were leaking court proceedings to the press and also happened to be secret lovers.
Edward Roonsby, a court reporter for the Chicago Daily News, and Doris Plover, a circuit court stenotype operator were using stenotype to hide their spying activites, and occassionally a saucy love letter, in plain sight. This was the mid 1930s, the heyday of Chicago newspaper journalism, The Chicago Press Club, The Front Page, His Girl Friday, Hildy Johnson, Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Jake Lingle, Dillinger, Capone. Reporters would stop at nothing to get the scoop, and it sounds like Edward and Doris had a little bribery scheme going. Ed refers to Doris as his "little bird", and not just because her name means "a short-billed gregarious wading bird, typically found by water" but his apparent fondness of feathers might even earn him honorary "twitchers" status, or in this case "birder" status. (you'll see what I mean later.)
Stenotype machines are used by court reporters, aka stenographers, aka stenotype operators to record every word spoken in a court proceeding. You may still see them today in courtrooms. The court reporter is the person who is often asked to "read that back" when the judge or lawyers need something repeated verbatim.
The machines use an abbreviated keyboard, containing only 22-24 keys, and only 17 letters of the alphabet. It does not have keys for the letters C I J M N Q V X Y, or punctuation, but it does have 3 keys for the letter "S", 2 "T"s, and 2 "P"s! How can you type every word in the English language with that? The missing letters are made up by pressing combinations of multiple keys at the same time, called chords. Steno is really like it's own language. It's phonetic and has its own dictionary. Each stenographer develops their own customized dictionary over time, creating shortcuts, or "briefs" for specific words or phrases. It appears that Doris and Ed used a fairly standard dictionary.
The stenotype machine’s keyboard is designed to be used phonetically, with the stenographer typing from left to right. The left side of the keyboard is called the “initial” side, and the right side of the keyboard is called the “final” side. Steno paper has become almost obsolete with the advancement in paperless stenotype machines. But when it is used, steno paper comes out of a stenotype machine at the rate of one row per chord, with the pressed letters printed out in 22 columns corresponding to the 22 keys, in the following order:
with the asterisk acting as a wildcard. In Steno, the same keyed letters always appear in the same spaces on the printout, always 22 character spaces per row. This is known as Steno order.
The Steno paper printout which looks like gibberish to most people, would be transcribed into English at a later date if needed.
Edward and Doris would often communicate their plans via Steno. Here's an example of one note from Edward to Doris:
And this particular note from Doris would make a Capone speakeasy girl blush:
These days Steno, and stenographers are considered by many to be a dying breed, but Steno has many advantages and modern day uses. Aside from its use in the courtroom, steno is used for closed captioning on television, and for TDD telephone services for the deaf. Steno typing is much faster than QWERTY typing mostly because of chording. For example the word "connection" takes 10 keystrokes in QWERTY, but only 1 keystroke in Steno. Just consider this: The average person speaks at a rate of 150-180wpm, handwriting is 22-31wpm, QWERTY typing 80wpm, and a professional Steno typist = 225wpm. The world record for Steno typing is 360wpm. Computer programmers, who often type the same command strings of code over and over again could, using a Steno dictionary with customized briefs, type entire lines of code with one keystroke.
Useless Steno Trivia: Steno closed captioning received some unfortunate notoriety in 2013 when news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing released the names of the suspects. Because the name "Dzhokhar Tsarnaev" was not recognized by the computerized steno dictionary in use at that Fox News station, the closed captioning system substituted the closest match it could find which ended up being actress "Zooey Deschanel", and named her as one of the bombing suspects. A good steno dictionary uses briefs, macros, or as a last resort, fingerspelling, to identify unrecognized words and prevent these kinds of errors.
Can you reveal Edward and Doris's secret message and find the cache from the 1930s?
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