When Typing Was in Flower

The advent of the typewriter on the American scene opened for the working woman the way to office employment, a field previously reserved for men. How best to operate the new gadget was hotly debated, and interest in contests between the two-finger and ten-finger factions was sufficient to fill Madison Square Garden. These droll footnotes from our social history are taken from a forthcoming book by BRUCE BLIVEN, JK., The Wonderful Writing Machine, to be published this spring by Random House.



THE phrase “learning to type,”as it is now used, means learning to type by touch using all eight lingers and both thumbs — although many nonprofcssionnls manage to operate the machine successfully with inferior techniques. The prolific writer Irwin Ross, for instance, goes like a bat out of a cave using only one finger of one hand, as if testing to see whether the keys are red-hot. His is a most unusual method, for the average huntand-peek operator employs at least two fingers, or four, and may, from time to time, sneak in a fifth. Modern nontouch typists are modest about their abilities, however, and say when questioned, “I don’t really know how to type; I just use my own system.”

By today’s standards, no one knew how to type for fifteen years after the typewriter came onto the market. Ten-finger touch technique was not thought of until 1882, and it didn’t catch on until 1888. A daring spirit, Mrs. L. V. Longley of Cincinnati, proprietor of Longley’s Shorthand and Typewriter Institute, was the first person on record with the audacity to propose that typists should use all the fingers of both hands. She wrote and published a pamphlet setting forth her incendiary ideas in 1882, and she had been teaching her students the method for some time before she got it down on paper. Mrs. Longley’s system was not a touch method. She was not concerned about where the typist kept his eyes. She simply thought it absurd to let four good fingers, the third and fourth of each hand, go to waste.

Conservative opinion felt that Mrs. Longley was off her rocker. As late as 1887 a trade magazine, the Cosmopolitan Shorthander, blasted away editorially at Mrs. Longley’s radicalism and the harebrained notions of the few who were following her lead: “Unless the third finger of the hand has been previously trained to touch the keys of a piano, we believe that it is not worth while to attempt to use that finger in operating the typewriter. The best operators we know of use only the first two fingers of each hand, and it is questionable whether a higher speed can be attained by the use of three.

Mrs. Longley might have lost the argument if another rebel, Frank E. McGurrin of Salt Lake City, had not appeared on the typewriting scene. McGurrin was the official stenographer for the Federal Court in Salt Lake City, and a sensationally good typist. He had taught himself. He had worked out his own ten-finger system on a Remington Model 1 in a law office in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he had formerly been a clerk. And he could really make that typewriter jump. Not only did McGurrin use ten fingers. He had also memorized the keyboard, and he was able to write without looking at his hands at all — blindfolded if necessary.

Naturally McGurrin was proud of what he could do. He began to give demonstrations of his wondrous ability, first to gasping audiences in Salt Lake City and later throughout the Western cities. Despite a rather mild, amiable appearance, there was a certain streak of truculence in McGurrin’s nature. He was positive that he was the fastest typist in the world, and whenever he heard about anyone who might be considered a contender for the title, McGurrin hurled his challenge. He was ready to take on all comers in a match race at anyplace, any time. And he was ready to bet a substantial sum of money that McGurrin would win.

Now Cincinnati had another typewriter teacher besides Mrs. Longley, a certain Louis Taub, who took a poor view of ten-lingered typists. He believed, like the editors of the Cosmopolitan Shorthander, that four fingers were plenty. Moreover, Taub thought that the Remington and Remington’s shift for capital letters were outmoded by the Caligraph and Caligraph’s double keyboard with its two keys per letter, one upper and the other lower case. Finally, Taub felt reasonably certain that he was the fastest typewriter operator in the world.

McGurrin reddened just above his high stiff collar. He challenged. Taub accepted. McGurrin agreed to travel to Cincinnati — anything rather than allow the taint on his reputation to stand. The race w as to be in two parts: 45 minutes of direct dictation and 45 minutes of copying from an unfamiliar script, and the man with the larger combined total number of words would win. The stake was $500.

Never before in U.S. history had a duel been fought with typewriters, and the event stirred up an extraordinary amount of public interest. Both the Remington and the Caligraph company officials were torn between anxiety and hope. Mrs. Longley was in a state.

McGurrin won easily, just as he had predicted, on July 25, 1888. He won both separate events as well as the aggregate. Typists all over the country noticed an extraordinary feature of his triumph. He had actually gone faster working from copy than when he had taken dictation. He had kept his eyes glued to the test material, never losing his place, never looking at his hands. Poor Taub, on the other hand, could only take in an eyeful at a time. He had fallen farther and farther behind, wagging his head like a spectator at a tennis match as he turned from script to keyboard and back again to script.

McGurrin v. Taub was a curiously decisive battle. It was immediately clear to everyone, Taub especially, that a good four-finger man didn’t stand a chance against a good ten-finger man. It was clear that a speed typist had to memorize the keyboard, and it followed, from that, that the double keyboard was doomed because it was too big to negotiate by touch alone, a point that Caligraph unfortunately missed.

Before long the Cosmopolitan Shorthander, without a word of apology for the nasty things it had said about third fingers, was over in McGurrin’s corner, editorially, where Mrs. Longley had been for six years. A few months later, in 1889, Bates Torrey, of Portland, Maine, in a pamphlet, “A Manual of Practical Typewriting,” used the word touch to describe the system McGurrin used, the first time the ten-fingers-don’t-watchyour-hands method had had a convenient name.


FOR the next thirty-five years typewriter speed contests held the public interest, and typewriter speed queens and kings were celebrities of a minor luminosity. Speed typing drew crowds and inspired hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of free newspaper and magazine publicity.

One aspect of McGurrin v. Taub was most disturbing: even the loser was a male. Men, in their smug way, may have been pleased with this fact, but it did not jibe with a great deal that had been written about woman’s natural affinity for the typewriter: her nimbleness, her dexterity, her innate grace, and all that sort, of thing. Nor did it help the sales argument that, if you bought a typewriter, a girl went with it as extra equipment. It began to look as if businessmen should have been hiring male typists instead, a reversal that could have killed off the infant industry just as it. was getting nicely under way.

A book publisher, of all people, was directly responsible for finding the way out of this dangerous impasse. D. Appleton & Company had an encyclopedia on its Fall, 1888, list. The firm wanted publicity. It wanted to lot the encyclopedia-buying public know, in particular, that the work was right up to the minute and that, for accuracy’s sake, expense had been no consideration. It devised the perfect stunt. It would hold a special contest to determine how fast a very fast typist could go and include the result in the article on the Typewriter under “T.” Each of the major typewriter manufacturers, Remington, Caligraph, and Hammond, was invited to compete.

Remington held a preliminary speed contest to see who should have the honor of representing the industry’s oldest typewriter name. Good publicity in it, Remington figured.

A young lady, Miss Mae Orr, a mere child but the head of her own firm of public stenographers and typists, with an office at 120 Broadway, entered Remington’s pre-Appleton contest. Like McGurrin, Orr was a touch typist and exceedingly fast. She had been busy with her typing service, however, and did not hear about the Remington preliminaries until the morning of the very day, so she had no time to practice. She won anyhow, but. not by much.

In the few days before the main Appleton event, Orr practiced hard, for she didn’t want to let Remington orr’s typing service down. She needn’t have bothered. Orr did close to 100 words a minute.

The D. Appleton Company editors were terribly embarrassed. They knew that a very fast typist could do 80 wpm, for dozens had done so. But there was Orr, in a class by herself, ridiculously far ahead of all the others. They didn’t know what to say. They didn’t want the article in the encyclopedia to look like a Remington-Orr house ad. So, to be on the safe, accurate side, they omitted the whole bothersome sentence.

Nevertheless Orr, whose fingers were by now well loosened up, decided to challenge McGurrin. McGurrin came storming to New York in August and, to the dismay of all those devoted to woman’s emancipation, battled Orr down. He beat her by three fifths of a word — 95 and four fifths to 95 and one fifth — but there were those among the spectators who felt that McGurrin had frightened Orr into defeat. Orr had actually gone faster than McGurrin, but she had made a lot more mistakes. It was only on net speed, after a deduction for errors, that the brute had triumphed. At Toronto, two weeks later, in a return match, Orr seemed more calm. Her lingers fairly flew. She made some mistakes, but her net speed was 98.7, several words per minute better than McGurrin.

Another great lady champion, probably the greatest of all time, emerged in 1905. Her name was Rose Fritz. Speed typing had been rather informal between 1888 and 1905, with lots of challenge matches and lots of exhibitions, but no satisfactorily clear-cut national championship to settle the conflicting boasts of various contenders. In 1906 the trade magazine Office Appliances put up a. beautiful trophy. It was to become the permanent property of anyone who won it three consecutive times, which seemed well-nigh impossible at the time, for the landscape was dotted with first-class competitors. The donors had not figured on Miss Fritz. She retired the cup in her first three tries. Office Appliances, with the help of donations from most of the typewriter manufacturers, put up an even bigger, fancier cup. Miss Fritz won, for the fourth consecutive time, in 1907. And again in 1908. And again in 1909, with a net of 95 words per minute. Whereupon Miss Fritz, tucking both her trophies under her arm, retired from championship competition, undefeated and unparalleled, and let a mere man, H. O. Blaisdell, who had been finishing second to Fritz with dogged regularity, capture the crown in 1910.

Both Fritz and Blaisdell raced on Underwoods, and by the time they had chalked up eight consecutive victories between them, all the other typewriter manufacturers were slightly bored with speed championships. The Underwood No. 5, the machine of champions, was fast, but no faster than Royal, Remington, or L. C. Smith, to name a few. All speed typists realized that a champion like Rose Fritz, for instance, would have won on any old typewriter, and that in typewriter racing, unlike horse racing, the jockey is practically everything. The point had been proved repeatedly, because several speed kings and queens had switched from one company’s stable to another’s, and it had had no appreciable effect on their speed. But the man in the street couldn’t help thinking that Underwood, since it always took the speed title, must be faster than other typewriters.

Underwood did have something no other company had. It was a genius named Charles E. Smith. He was the coach of the Underwood racing stable, its talent scout, and the inventor of a set of special speed typing techniques. Year after year Smith thought up some .improvement in racing form and taught it to his proteges, and unless a competitor had the latest Smith secret he hardly had a chance.

The squad worked hard. A huge, loftlike room in a building at 30 Vescy Street was its gymnasium, and the purr of typewriters doing 100 words a minute and better filled the air eight hours a day, five days a week. Each typist bad his own racing typewriter, an Underwood, naturally, and never let anybody borrow it, or thought of using another, for it was custom-adjusted to suit his fingers. Me carried it to matches, or on exhibition tours, in a big, plush-lined case with wardrohetrunk-type latches and special protective fittings to guard against accidental bumps or jars, and he worried about it the way a concert violinist worries about a Stradivarius, holding the huge thing on bis lap, if necessary, rather than letting it be consigned to a baggage ear. The machines were stock models bill souped up almost beyond recognition, like a hot rod’s racing automobile — especially the multitoothed wheels which controlled their carriages, which had been filed to hair-trigger delicacy; they’d let the carriage move on to the next space if anybody gave them so much as a sharp look.

The typists had to struggle to combine speed with stamina, for the championship professional course was a full hour’s run. The racers had to build up endurance, and had to learn to pace themselves like mile runners. The exertion was tremendous. After an hours race, the floor around the typists’ chairs was literally wet from the perspiration that had dripped down their arms and off their elbows.

An ideal spectator sport needs a clear-cut, obvious denouement — a knockout, a touchdown, a home run, or something equivalent. lypewriter racing had no dramatic punch line, and this, as much as Smith’s strangle hold on the sport, may have been its downfall. The end came with a whimper rather than a bang. Typewriter races by the hundreds are still held every year, but are small-fry stuff by comparison with the Golden Era.

Some great racers are still around and still in excellent form, notably Albert Tangora, a professional who does exhibitions wearing the Royal colors, holder of the world’s record of a net 142 five-stroke words per minute set in Chicago in 1941 using a Royal Standard. (Tangora doesn’t mention the fact unless he is asked directly — that Smith trained him to race on the Underwood, and that in 1923, before the five-stroke definition of a word had been adopted, be did 147 net actual words per minute on his Underwood No. 5.) It is barely possible that speed typing contests may have a revival. But the chances are heavily against it. And for one dominant reason: all standard typewriters are a whole lot faster than typists. And Smith’s squad showed, to almost everyone’s satisfaction, how fast typists can be.