The Last Word in Transcription
Experience      Accuracy      Efficiency      Literacy

(Selective) History of the Last Word
a personal memoir by the founder

The Remington Portable was where I learned to type, back in the day. I wanted to be on the high school newspaper and taught myself touch typing - no such course in an all-boys school in those days. Uncle Eugene loaned me this baby while he was in college.

Courtesy Richard Polt,

And then the Smith Corona portable electric lifted me through graduate school. I finished typing my masters dissertation on the kitchen table while I lived in a slum, unemployed and laughing at the irony.

Smith Corona Electric

Uncle Arnold repaired Remingtons; so in a way I was well fixed for this business long before I ever thought of myself as a business person. Back in the day, the secretary was female. Rarely did men step into this role. Earlier I figured being male was a negative in this business and was at pains to hide my gender in our promotions. Thank feminism for liberating some of us men; but I still hear the old stereotypes, such as, "could you have your girl type this?"

The business, The Last Word, began with a gift from my dear friend, the late Dick Noll - actually from his father's estate. One day Dick walked into my apartment with a check for $800. He announced that he believed I would put this money to good use, and make his father's estate work for some larger purpose. Something, he said, about a New Testament parable (look it up).

IBM Selectric II
photo courtesy:

With cash in hand I purchased the sleek second-generation IBM Selectric II - state of the art. It allowed me to produce the best looking term papers and resumes, even a schedule for a guitar school.

My business goal was simple: I wanted to work with my hands and be self-supporting. First thing in the morning I would do my own writing. I toyed with the idea of academia as the usual path for many writers - that doctorate in English or Philosophy, eventually esconced a university or college. But I wanted to write, not teach, and I knew I could make it on my own.

I studied Gregg Shorthand, and immediately forgot everything. Times had changed before the class was over.

After a few months with the Selectric, I was able to get a loan on a new car, and an occasional sandwich at a restaurant. I was in heaven - independently employed. About 2 years later I saw an ad for a word processor that was being demonstrated in a hotel room. Why, this gadget had a memory of over 25 characters, and a screen in which you could look at what you typed, correct it and send to the paper, which was still rolled up on the old-technology typewriter spindle. I was hooked. But the price was $10,000. The numbers simply did not work.

Word Processing is Born

A few months later the computer-based word processor appeared in hotel rooms all over the city, like robins in the spring, chirping about Copy, Paste, Undo, File, and a television tube through which one could view and edit about a half page of typing. The prices were awful enough but no one had any idea how fast these babies would depreciate in the near future. Lanier, Burroughs, and IBM - they each had a particular bell or whistle, but I procrastinated.

Courtesy Harold Koplow, Wang 5

When the Wang System 5 appeared, something clicked. I was fascinated by the programming capability and I jumped in.

An early advert by Wang Laboratories for their new fangled word processor suggested a name for the now computerized business. As the years wore on this cute name later earned its keep, not knowing our 21st Century word for the action - I was "branding" my skills.

The price for the "5" in 1979 was astronomical by all standards - past present and future. M&I Bank offered me a loan I could handle, and so I put in my order. About the same day that Wang called to tell me that the three(!) huge boxes were going on the truck, my banker called to say there would be no loan, but that he had "worked something out" with the M&I personal loan officer - "Be sure to call him, Bill." Bye-bye, Randy.

No Se Puede

The personal loan officer would tell me No, Bill, you have no collateral. But, I said, that machine is the collateral. That is not how it worked in those days and I was out of luck, with a debt large enough to buy a duplex. Randy never returned another phone call.

Dear Dad bailed me out with his nest egg - he had just retired, and gave me that quiet worried look, that a loving father delivers to a fully grown son who appeared to be drifting. (Yes, thankfully, I paid it off on time.) Today when I hear how Famous Loan Officer is esteemed by bankers and civic people all over the city, I keep in mind that on top of fame, there may be bodies buried somewhere.

Expanding the Service

The new asset put me on several new learning curves. My friend, a history professor, said, ah yes, Bill, "Capitalism's Challenge," after the acquisition of an asset, to keep it running 24/7. Quite true. There was no point in having an expensive box locked up in the house paying its way only eight hours a day.

Enter employees. Exit the office from my apartment. (It will never go back.) But the change gave me a chance to leave the office. Early on, we were the "only" publicly available computer in town; business expanded into a downtown office.

Word got out from monthly dinners with fellow word processors - I would talk about the Wang and its programming ability because I did not have the hundred dollar suit that created an aura of authority about the other men. Barbara Olson took my stories back to Johnson Controls and I found myself being invited by a manager to the battery plant on Keefe Ave. Al wrote purchase orders, one after the other, allowing me to write elaborate bills of materials programs on their large (40 megabyte) Wang system. I was making money and getting spoiled by the speed of the hard disk - and calculating how long the gig would last, and could I afford a larger system? (The Wang in my office ran on two floppy disks, with about 380K of file capacity.)

Soon, I was recruited to write sales scheduling programs at WISN-TV where I met the stomach of the ever hungry television industry. St. Joseph Hospital followed and then a medical transcription company, where I wrote software to help the manager count word processing lines - the basis for all medical transcription wages. I quickly realized what an oppressive scene this was for the worker, trapped to a workstation for eight straight hours, and working for pennies a line, while listening to polysyllabic medical terms clouded with accents from all over the world. Nevermind the life and death burden of errors.

Finding My Peers

About this time, I met the brain of Paul Novitski who had introduced two (or) more programming languages to the Wang Word Processor. With his holy-card long hair and beard, he was viscerally noncorporate, generous, and a terrific companion when we went to stuffy corporate shows to explain our work. His mentoring was the kind of mentoring we all wish for in a competitive environment - a leader who discovers and shares.

John Faragher, my gifted, life-long mentor, had been - as science teacher - introducing the early PCs to Brookfield-Elmbrook High Schools and we collaborated in Basic to market hospital software for the Wang.

As a programmer I found myself in a unique niche, writing a column for Access, a monthly magazine for workers and managers of Wang systems - and happily a permanent understudy to Novitski. This launched my brief career as a convention lecturer - two cities: Los Angeles and London.

Wang's Mistake

Underestimating the marketing power behind IBM's new PC, Wang continued to produce the Wang PC based on a different chip. Wang focused its energies on a data system that was too much like the IBM and not enough different; software writers became employment migrants or subcontractors and gravitated to the heaviest planets. In a final gasp of word processing leadership Wang developed a brilliant word processing software for the PC, but eventually sold it to Lotus, thereby surrendering its global lead in its primary market: Word Processing. Paul Novitski describes the scene from the vantage point of system design; and (looking back historically) it is no wonder Wang lost its turf.

World Without Dubbing

The Last Word left Wang in the early 90s. The PC that Wang built for us was completely replaced, part by part, with new everything, from motherboard to mouse over a period of years. Two serviceable Dells followed; I continued loyalty to Dell until they delivered two state-of-the-art computers with Windows Vista.

What went wrong? Transcription means working with sound and sound today in the modern world is the alphabet soup of extensions: wav, mp3, dss, ogg - for starters. Vista (or was it Dell?) did not allow me to dub sound. Dell techies found my need to dub sound confusing; the book they were using seemed to have a page ripped out. I believed that I had bumped into a cabal controlled by RIAA which was so intent on world domination of sound recordings that they somehow inveigled Microsoft to support their perceived legal rights.

While some folks may dub copyrighted material, I have no interest in that. To do our assignments I need to dub recordings to suit transcription software. Recordings owned by my client. It is as if Engulf and Devour, Inc., managed to patent the COPY key and was able to order software companies to strip COPY from their products. I pulled both computers out and shipped them back to Dell on the 30th day of the money back guarantee. No regrets. I never looked back.

Romaine Wood

Our new computer maker lives down the street, in the same city famous for the original keyboard typewriter, my Milwaukee. Circuit-Tree, owned and operated, by Romaine Wood has been my sturdy partner now for two years. His box is a magnificent marriage of design, technology and power. After two years I have yet to feel the computer is beginning to "slow down" - a common complaint from users of Windows.

Circuit-Tree's baby

Truth to tell: I was not looking to transcribe - it can be extremely intense work. I believe anything more than four hours a day is a strain, maybe not a career, and not a good idea for solo self-employment. In my humble opinion, transcription is unsuitable for 8-hour days, 40-hour weeks. This reality pushed me to rethink an effective business strategy: quality not production. But I needed to learn from my future workers how to make it work.

Without their help, I had just completed 20-some hours of a foundation's discussions from very low quality tapes, when "out of the blue" I received calls, first from Carla, and then from Sherry. They both offered to take in any transcribing that I might not be able to do myself. I nearly said No, but took their numbers and one day called them back. This was probably the best business decision I ever made in my life. Today I have a small team of part-time people so qualified, though Carla and Sherry have moved on.

So, Bill, what exactly do you do?

I don't suppose I should admit this here, but as a matter of policy and personal preference, I no longer transcribe anything longer than 3 minutes. My team-mates are the best, and I want to keep them as close as I can, even through a recession. My actual function is to manage, review quality, schedule, juggle schedules, say No when a new prospect wants me to bump a committed job for a new one.

I encourage each helper to think of themselves as business owners, and to take work that comes to them from any customer. I encourage workers to say No to a job I offer if they cannot meet our client's deadline, and I work with the client or shuffle assignments if the transcriber comes down ill. I would imagine that in the typical office - where someone tosses a tape to a receptionist to do in his "spare" time - that is the nightmare job. At, I am the buffer to the telephone. I ask most questions by email; giving a worker time to think through an answer is just good management.

Today, with thousands of hours (every year) of combined transcription experience, I humbly believe we might be the best. With my trusty team I have not hesitated to guarantee our work. Because of my several years as a programmer I have the personal confidence to sell in novel situations.

A recent example, two years ago I received a call to type sound bytes into a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet cell is unfriendly to text; working in the cell is like typewriting - no Copy, Paste, or Replace - one error and you lose the cell. I devised an efficient way of doing the task in Word, importing it to Excel, and profitably working with the client for 18 months until their technology goals were achieved in another format. The client told me later that my bid was much lower than any other bid, but from my point of view the job was a gold mine - every day a job for 18 months. I connect these skills to my fascination for technical solutions, which came to life using the Wang System 5.

I do not believe in the myth of the "self-made man." I connect The Last Word's success with heartfelt gratitude to Dad, Paul, John, my Uncles Howard, Eugene and Arnold, my brothers George and Robert, Susan Bednar who raised the business to a high level of maturity, and, in the last 15 years, the men and women who have professionally accepted assignments and performed beyond our client expectations.

Looking Back

Before Dick Noll passed on I assured him that his gift contributed to many worthy community causes - maybe the address list for fledgling nonprofits, a foreign student with issues around English, the earliest newsletter for Milwaukee's fabulous Urban Ecology Center, and that wonderful give-back to a business person who wants it: the leisure from work to contribute time back to the community. Milwaukee gave back a hundredfold.

So all this is why I am confident as The Last Word makes its way with the nation out of a deep recession. These days our work calendar is steady, sometimes crowded, sometimes the "cliff" - the days without a single call. My personal goal is simple: to do what it takes to convince each client to come back. And as I finish this, the phone rings.

Bill Sell, Principal

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