Some people say the pen is mightier than the sword, but for Charles J. Murphy, the pen is mightier than the stenotype.
An official court reporter who has been transcribing proceedings of the Baltimore City Circuit Court for more than a quarter of a century, Murphy is the last of a breed here and among the last in the United States -- a "pen writer," who uses old-fashioned ink and a silver Shaeffer fountain pen to record what others do now with stenotype machines, tape recorders, computer-aided transcripters and other late 20th century paraphernalia.
Using pale green government-issue paper stacked on a battered clipboard, Murphy, 59, leans into his work, his broad hand gliding across the page, his pen accounting for every courtroom utterance in a series of shorthand squiggles, loops and swirls.
At 200-plus words a minute, "the system works for me," said Murphy. " . . . At least I don't use a quill."
Asked why he has not opted for the new technology, he shrugs: "Too busy. This seems to do the job. Might as well stick with what you know."
Sensitive to suggestions that he may be a stenographic dinosaur, he affectionately patted a 20-year-old Royal electric typewriter on his office desk and said, "I've got to have something modern here to offset my pens."
A large, affable man who has raised seven children while recording chunks of Maryland's modern politico-judicial history -- from the activities of Black Panthers to the financial intrigues of the Pallottine Fathers -- Murphy is one of 28 official reporters in the city court, but the only one who uses a pen.
Most of the others use stenotype machines, the small, 23-key, tripod-mounted box familiar to late-night viewers of Perry Mason courtroom scene reruns.
Old timers in the shorthand business say Murphy is one of only three or four practicing courthouse reporters in Maryland still using a pen.
In Frederick County Circuit Court, for example, reporters James M. Green and Elizabeth K. Hale are "pen writers" but in recent years have switched over and usually use tape recorders, according to Green.
Robert Clark, historian for the National Shorthand Reporters Association, estimates that of the 30,000 active reporters in the United States "about 200 are still writing with pens."
Murphy, a native of Baltimore, said he learned the Gregg shorthand method in high school.
He said he always wanted to become a court reporter and in 1955, after graduating from Loyola College here, started working in the courthouse as a bailiff. At the time, most reporters used pens, and stenotype machines were just coming on the scene.
Murphy was able to fill in periodically for other court reporters, and in 1959 he became a fulltime reporter.
He has been at it ever since, reporting criminal trials, civil matters and, most recently, secret grand jury proceedings.
For many years, he said, he used special pens handcrafted by a pen maker across the street from the courthouse. Each cost $10 and held an ink reservoir that Murphy filled with an eye dropper. He still has the eye dropper and a couple of the pens for old time's sake, but in a leap toward modernization a few years ago, he started using a Shaeffer fountain pen equipped with a new fangled self-filling bladder for holding the ink. The eye dropper became obsolete.
Murphy said he can get through a busy day at court with one refill of the pen, and he always keeps a reserve pen nearby for emergencies.
"At the end of the day, sometimes I have ink all over my hands," he said. "It goes with the territory."
Murphy said he never learned the stenotype machine because he never had the time. "There was always the backlog of court work," he said, " . . . and I was trying to raise seven kids, too."
Besides, he said, there is a conflict between the old system and the new. "When I hear a word, it registers as a shorthand symbol in my brain . . . . I couldn't scrap one system for the other or learn one while doing the other. It would take hours and hours of practice over several months, like learning a new vocabulary."
Murphy claims that pen stenography is just as accurate and reliable as machine stenography. Specialists in the field agree. "Definitely," said Clark of the shorthand reporters association. "A skilled pen writer is as good as a machine writer."
Of course, there are advantages to a stenotype machine, Clark said. "You're not looking at your work," he said, "and you can look at who's talking . . . . Also, your work is spread out over 10 fingers instead of two. You're not going to get writer's cramp."
Maybe so, said Murphy, but he will stick with his pens. "It works for me," he said. "That's what counts."