In a very real way, the history of transcription services is the history of the written word. After all, when it all comes down to the bottom line, transcription is simply the process of transforming verbal communication into written communication. 

Throughout history, transcription has taken many different forms and has seen a dramatic transformation. A process that started out as pictures on clay and papyrus and then turned into painstaking hand-scribing now happens almost instantaneously with the aid of cutting-edge technology. 

But how did we get here? How did we go from early written language to where we are today? What pieces are in the technology graveyard of yesteryears that served as a bridge to where we are today? 

While there is no possible way to cover the entire history of the written word, let’s hop in our time machine and do a brief fly-over tour of writing and transcription services through the years. 

And let’s start all the way back at the beginning… 

Oral Tradition and Early Writing Systems 

Humans are storytellers. Whether it’s a five-minute conversation at work, folklore, chants, or epic sagas, stories and the act of storytelling are what connect us to each other, building community and creating an opportunity to celebrate and honor our differences. 

One of the earliest forms of storytelling is oral storytelling. Oral storytelling is a key piece of cultural heritage, used to share knowledge, historical events, celebrations, and beliefs through spoken word, chant, or song. While oral storytelling is still an active and important cultural practice today, let’s explore the earliest forms of written storytelling. 

Some of the earliest forms of human communication and storytelling include abstract cave paintings and petroglyphs. But if we want to get a glimpse of language, we need to travel to ancient Mesopotamia, or modern-day Iraq, where Sumerian cuneiform was used to communicate business tasks like grain storage and cultural works like poetry. Cuneiform involves making wedge-shaped inscriptions and symbols on clay tablets by professional writers known as scribes. 

Early writing also began to come out of Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica all around the same time— around 3300-3250 BC. Similar to usage in Mesopotamia, Egyptian writing was first utilized for economic reasons in an increasingly complex world. All of these early writing systems were more symbol-based rather than alphabet-based. A reader would have to understand huge numbers of symbols in order to read the message. 

The History of the English Alphabet

The transition from a symbol-based written language to an alphabetic written language is a bit hard to decipher. Scholars have differing opinions of the exact roots and history. However, according to Penn Museum, many scholars believe that “Canaanite predecessors of the Phoenicians had invented the alphabet with the inspiration of Egyptian hieroglyphs.” 

This would place the beginnings of modern alphabetic writing at around 1800 BC in and around the land of Israel. That being said, there have also been recent archaeological discoveries that suggest that these kinds of written languages could have been in use closer to 2,400-2,300 BC. 

Regardless, we know that eventually, the Phoenicians taught their Semitic alphabet to the Greeks around 700 BC. The Greeks modified the alphabet, and writing began to become more widespread. A tool that was once used mostly for economic, historical, and governmental reasons was beginning to spread throughout the wider population. People also began to use the alphabet to write literature. Most famously from this time period—the works of Homer. 

While historical Greek can still be understood by Greek speakers today, we can’t stop there if we want to trace the story of the English alphabet. The next transformation was from Greek to ancient Latin around 500 BC and then again to Roman script in around 1 CE. The letters in Roman script are immediately recognizable: they are the exact same letters used in our modern English alphabet. 

While it would take about 1500 more years before the modern English language itself would emerge in Europe, the alphabet system utilized by the English language has been in place for over 2000 years. During that time, if anything was to be transcribed from audio to writing, it would, of course, have to be completed by hand. 

Ok, now hold on very tightly, because we’re about to kick the time machine into high gear and travel from the birth of the Roman script alphabet to some of the first technological advances in transcriptions. 

The Council on Foreign Relations walks us through some of the most significant advances in communications. The whole article is worth a read, but for the sake of summary let’s look at some highlights about the beginnings of speedy communications: 

• 1450: The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. 

• 1814: The invention of the steam-powered printing press. This press could print over 1,000 pages per hour—a huge advancement at the time. 

• 1844: The first telegram is sent. For the first time, important messages could immediately be sent across the country. 

• 1858: a telegraph is sent across the ocean to the queen in under 24 hours. 

• 1861: a telegraph is sent from the East Coast to the West Coast of America. 

The world was beginning to speed up and become much more interconnected than ever before. Important memos could be transcribed in telegraph form and transmitted across the country, or even the world, and reach their destination in anywhere from seconds to hours instead of days. 

But these were relatively concise communications. No one was sending entire books through telegraph.

While these were written messages, we still need to fast forward a little further through history to reach the beginnings of what we would recognize as true transcription services. 

According to The New York Public Library for the Performing ArtsXavier University, while there were many earlier iterations of the same concept, in 1874, typewriters first began to make their way into America. There were several different designs in the next couple of decades, but by 1920, most typewriters looked and operated very similarly. This was obviously a huge advancement in transcription services. Audio could now be typed very quickly instead of written by hand. 

In 1962 the cassette tape was invented by Lou Ottens. Now, audio can be recorded, easily stored, and then played back. If we combine the cassette tape with the typewriter, we see a powerful combination. Audio could be recorded at one time and transcribed at a different time. Now a transcriber didn’t have to be physically present at the time of the audio but could still accurately transcribe it. 

Computers Enter the Scene 

The history of computers is extremely fascinating and complex…and surprisingly dates back all the way to the 1800s. For purposes of brevity, we’re going to skip some of the early years and focus on developments that affect the history of transcription. (But if you’d like to learn more, we’d suggest checking out this full version of the computer history article from Live Science.) 

Let’s start with some names you might recognize. Hewlett and Packer began their computer company in a garage in 1939. A couple of years later the first digital electronic computer was invented and it was “the first time a computer is able to store information on its main memory.” In 1945 the ENIAC computer was born—a huge advancement and also a huge computer. It took up a whole room the size of a decent-sized house! 

While a massive advancement for society, a computer of this size was impossible for household use or for portable transcription-related services. 1975 and 1976 brought the birth of Microsoft and Apple Computers, respectively. Around this time, there were a couple of different companies and inventors beginning to produce computers for home use. 

In just a couple of decades, computers would become commonplace additions to the family home. In fact, half of Americans would come to own a home computer by 2000--a percentage that has continually climbed and is over 90% today. 

With such developments, transcribers could begin to utilize computers for their services. Not only did this enhance the writing process in general, but now transcriptions could be digitally stored, sent, and transferred. 

The New Frontier: AI-Assisted Transcriptions


While Artificial Intelligence technology (AI) is now part of our daily vernacular, for most of us it probably feels like a fairly new invention. 

But did you know that there was a radio-controlled car in New York in 1925? Or that the first robot was built in Japan in 1929? Or that there was a very early cousin to ChatGPT invented in 1988? Like everything else, the roots of AI go back much further than most of us would have initially guessed.

These days AI has come to be a day-to-day norm. From ChatGPT to OpenAI, to predictive text, to Siri, to Generative AI, this technology has become a part of our daily lives. It has also completely changed the landscape of transcription services. Instead of a person physically needing to transcribe audio into text, AI can “listen” to audio and produce an accurate text version of that audio nearly instantaneously. 

While this is amazing and would have been truly unbelievable to the scribes of the past, there were still areas for improvement. If you watch an AI-captioned video, you’ll often notice some mistakes due to “sound-alike words.” Echo Lab’s contribution to this long history of transcription history is a new AI-assisted technology that eliminates these errors to produce 99%+ accuracy. 

Think about that for a second. We’ve gone from very early alphabets on clay all the way to AI-generated writing and transcribing that can be over 99% accurate. It truly is an amazing story. 

We know AI technology can feel a little buzzwordy sometimes. And with all the tech terminology, it can also feel a little intimidating and a little too…new. We understand that impulse. 

But we think about AI transcription services as a natural continuation of a long line of advancements in human writing and communication. It’s not about machines taking over the world. It’s about a continual progression of writing and transcription technology fueled by human brilliance that began with people not all that different from us all the way back in the 3000s BC. 

Writing has always been about people. How to organize people, communicate with people, create just laws for people, entertain people, romance people, help people. Utilizing AI-assisted transcription technology is still very much for people. Including enabling millions of people to gain new access to higher education. 

So we don’t consider ourselves a new story. Just part of one long and amazing story that spans human history and is as old as writing itself. 

Come join the story with us as we keep writing new chapters.