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People throughout history have experimented with methods and symbols for abbreviating spoken communications because of the need for accurate records of speeches, meetings, legal proceedings, and other events. Contemporary shorthand systems are based on the phonetic principle of using a symbol to represent a sound. Stenographers use a special keyboard called a steno keyboard or shorthand machine to "write" what they hear as they hear it.

Shorthand began to be applied to business communications with the invention of the typewriter. The stenotype, the first machine that could print shorthand characters, was invented by an American stenographer and court reporter named Ward Stone Ireland around 1906. Unlike a traditional typewriter keyboard, the steno keyboard allows more than one key to be pressed at a time. The basic concept behind machine shorthand is phonetic, where combinations of keys represent sounds, but the actual theory used is much more complex than straight phonetics.

Today, stenographers, in addition to using stenotype machines, use Dictaphones or computer-based systems to transcribe reports, letters, and official records of meetings or other events. Their careful and accurate work is essential to the proper functioning of various organizations of law, business, and government.

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