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The Horace Webb Story

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."

 

Finally, at the height of the busy season, the clerk of the Senate Interior Committee called Pappy Ward. The committee needed a reporter immediately. Pappy desperately wanted to hang onto the committee work, but he was at the bottom of his reporting barrel. "I've only got one reporter left, suh. He takes down the proceedings different than anything you ever saw, but I guarantee he'll turn in a good transcript."

After considerable practice, I persuaded my employer (now in Washington D.C.) to permit me to try it in some hearings, alongside the official reporter. The system worked like a charm. I was able to take testimony and arguments in stride. Even the "hot spots," objections to questions or answers and the ensuing colloquy, were manageable.

Pappy called me. I was elated at the opportunity. I hustled to the hearing room and was ready to go when the committee chairman banged his gavel. "The committee will come to order." Then he looked me over carefully. No discernible shorthand notebook, no machine on a tripod. "Is there a reporter present?"

"Yes, sir, Senator. I'm ready."

He was obviously apprehensive but proceeded. During the first 15 minutes of preliminary remarks, the senator watched me closely. Finally the chairman felt the time had come to see whether or not a record was being made. He addressed the last speaker. "I was impressed by your statement, Senator, but I would like to hear it again. Will the reporter please repeat it for us?"

I repeated the statement, clearly and promptly. They were so relieved, they applauded. Honest! From that moment on, I was the forgotten man, as usual. The committee settled down to the business at hand.

Pappy subsequently received a letter from the senator's office complimenting me on the accuracy of the transcript, a rarity for a D.C. reporter. As the weeks and months passed, I was given other work, but usually only the "leavings," assignments other reporters did not want. Pappy was still fearful of what this system might do to the reporting business.

My partner Harold Steinman and I were the only two Stenomask reporters in the world at that point in time. We incorporated, set up a small machine shop in which to develop an improved Stenomask, and hired Frank Kenny, an experienced machinist. Frank previously knew nothing about reporting, but he caught the Stenomask fever and was soon as ardent a Stenomask booster as we. But Frank was soon drafted into the Navy and sent to sea.

For the next year or so, Harold and I fought a losing battle to get our Stenomask system moving. The D.C. reporting agencies didn't want to foster a system which could produce an abundance of reporters and additional competition. So the work dried up. Just when the future looked most bleak, Lady Luck tipped her finger in our direction.

After a tour at sea, Frank's ship came in for repairs to Newport, RI, the home of the Naval Justice School. Frank headed straight for the office of Captain Mott, the base executive officer, to ask for leave. While there, Captain Mott told Frank that he had a directive from the Chief of the Bureau of Naval Personnel to evaluate and test all known systems of court reporting, to recommend the one the Navy should adopt, and to set up a school to train naval personnel as court reporters. Captain Mott said, "I wish someone could tell me how I'm supposed to go about carrying out a directive like this."

"I have the answer, Captain." Frank let it all out. "I know of a new system for reporting that's been developed within the last couple of years. It's more accurate than the manual systems, and you can train reporters in a relatively short time as opposed to years."

Frank said the captain looked absolutely incredulous. He then arranged for us to meet the next morning, and after a day's demonstration and discussion, the Navy set up a test of "all known systems of verbatim reporting." The Stenomask won hands down and we were on our way.

The hand of fate? Or a stroke of luck?

Frank Kenny was one of only a handful of people in the world who knew about the Stenomask system. Captain Mott was the only person in the world who, at that moment, had been directed to test all systems of court reporting. For the two of them to have come together in a small office in Newport, RI, at the precise moment when the captain was upset about fulfilling his directive – well, you figure it out.