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Wednesday 1 February 2012

Bessie Friedman: World's Fastest Woman Typist

Bessie Friedman was, under full championship conditions, arguably the fastest female manual typewriter operator of all time. In 1923 she reached net speeds of 143 words a minute over one hour of typing.
It was not enough, however, for Bessie to claim the world open professional title, which by that time had come to be dominated by two men: George Hossfeld and Albert Tangora.
Thus Bessie Friedman has not come to be as well remembered among world typing champions as those two giants of speed typing history. Yet, at just 15, she had the typing world at her very fingertips.
When the like of Hossfeld and Tangora began to dominate world speed typing championships from 1918 until well into the 1930s, a separate women’s world championship had to be established. Things had definitely changed. Women had won nine of the first 12 official world championships, but then Hossfeld and Tangora brought a whole new dimension to the competition.
When Tangora took the open world title in 1923 with a remarkable score of 147 words a minute, Bessie Friedman won the women’s crown, just four words a minute behind Tangora.
But it was a far cry from Friedman’s heady days of a decade earlier. In 1913, champion female typists were feted like film stars and beauty queens, their celebrity status enhanced by large picture story spreads in the major newspapers. And Bessie Friedman back then was the toppermost of the tippermost.
After graduating from grammar school at 12 and entering Bronx Normal College, Bessie began in September 1909 to study stenography and typing under the Isaac Pittman system. She graduated still aged 14, and after approaching Underwood was almost immediately recruited into the Underwood speed typing team.
The Underwood team was coached by Charles E. Smith at Vesey Street, New York. At first Smith put weights on the back of little Bessie’s hands, to keep them in the correct typing position, and then blinkered her, to force her to concentrate on her work.
Smith’s “practical touch typing” relied on the “balanced hand method” – which meant going from the outside keys toward the centre.
Smith turned Bessie into a champion, but it would seem the demands of competition would take their toll. By 1913, Bessie had already entered nine world, national or state championships and won six of them (she was second twice and third once), setting new world records along the way.
A year later, Bessie had doubled her exposure to this red-hot competition, having taken part in 18 major events for 15 wins. Her speeds had reached 135 words a minute.
She was still 19, and already a national celebrity. She had won the world amateur title, and was looking ahead, declaring her ambition to take out the world professional crown during the big exhibition in San Francisco in 1915.
It was not be ...
Bessie Friedman continued on into the 1920s, still demonstrating speed typing for Underwood at schools and in newspapers around the country. But her days as a serious challenger for the world open title were over. Hossfeld and Tangora had seen to that.
In March 1922, the Huntingdon Daily News wrote of a demonstration Bessie gave in its offices: “Miss Friedman writes two hours a day. But in those two hours she does more work than the average typist could do in two days. She didn’t powder her nose once during the demonstration, nor does she chew gum. The lines of type flow across the paper from her typewriter about as rapidly as you could draw a line with a pencil. The office boy spent an hour reading what Miss Friedman wrote in five minutes. He was looking for mistakes, but he found none.”
Bessie Friedman had been a world novice champion at 15 and went on to take out the world amateur title in 1914 (To qualify as a novice or amateur, typists had to have been learning to type for less than 30 months. Novices typed over 15 minutes, amateurs 30 minutes and professionals one hour). But the really grand prize continued to elude her.
Bessie was born, possibly in Russia, in 1895. In 1913 she was living with her parents (her father was Morris Friedman) at 431 East 140th Street in The Bronx.
She first made her mark on the world championships stage at Madison Square Garden, New York, on October 25, 1910, competing as a “novice” – that is, as someone who had not started typewriting before September 1, 1909.
Bessie won the world title in that division with 81 words per minute over 15 minutes. But the result placed her second in the “schools” championship behind her future nemesis, Margaret B. Owen (below, 83 words a minute).
On April 22, 1911, Bessie, then aged just 15 and still a student at Wood’s Bronx School, dominated the New York City championships at Browne's Brooklyn Business College, taking out both the amateur and open divisions, just 20 months after taking up the typewriter. The championships were staged by the Isaac Pitman Shorthand Teachers' Association.
That year’s world amateur champion, Gus Trefzger, had been expected to easily beat Bessie, but she out-typed him by three words a minute.
Bessie scored a net 101 words a minute for 15 minutes, a new amateur record, to become regarded as “The Fastest Typist of Her Age in the World”. “Miss Friedman is beyond all doubt the fastest operator of her age and experience in the world,” newspapers of the day declared.
At the world championship at Madison Square Garden in October that year, Bessie finished third behind Gus Trefzger and Margaret Owen – Owen was to become world professional champion for the first of four times in 1913. Trefzger, brother of Emil Trefzger (below), who won the 1914 world professional title, set a new world amateur record of 98 words a minute to win on a countback from Owen, while Bessie scored 90 words a minute.
On July 19, 1912, in Spokane, Washington, Bessie won the United States amateur title by typing 3208 words in 30 minutes. Her average of 107 words a minute beat Gus Trefzger’s record. In this contest she beat Owen into second place. But in the open event Bessie, with 105 words a minute, was third behind Owen and the winner, Florence E. Wilson, who was to become world professional champion in New York later that year. Bessie was ninth in the world championship with 104 words a minute.
On April 31, 1913, in the international championships at Massey Hall, Toronto, Bessie won the amateur title with 3468 words in 30 minutes. After accounting for 33 errors, her net score was 110 words a minute. On September 9, at The Coliseum in Chicago, she retained the US title by scoring 118 words a minute, typing 3664 words in 30 minutes, a rate of two words a second.
The next year, 1914, was to be Bessie’s year. In six contests, she wrote for 30 minutes at the rate of 122 or more net words a minute. In the world amateur championship in New York on October 26, Bessie wrote at the rate of 129 net words a minute for 30 minutes to take the title and break the existing world record.
After this triumph, Bessie had to step up to the professional ranks. Emil Trefzger won the world open title in 1914, and Owen took the next three championships. Then, in 1918, Hossfeld won the first of his 10 professional championships. Only William Oswald, in 1919, would break the stranglehold of Hossfeld and Tangora on the title over the ensuing 20 years.
Bessie Friedman toured the country with Tangora (above) in the 1920s, and her typing rate improved until she had reached 143 words a minute over 60 minutes in championship conditions. She was the world women's champion. But her dream of winning the world open title, on which she had set her heart in 1915, was not to come true.
We have, in a previous posts, looked at Hossfeld, Tangora, Emil Trefzger, Rose Fritz, Margaret Owen, Florence Wilson and Owen Blaisdell. Now, finally, Gustav Robert Trefzger, a Chicago Business School graduate who moved to New York. He was born in Peoria, Illinois, on 30 March, 1891, and died in Pasadena, California, on March 2, 1966.
Gus (above) competed in national and world speed typing competitions as an amateur from 1908 to 1911 and then as a professional until 1916. He won the world amateur championship at Madison Square in 1911. His 98 net words a minute for an hour won him a cash prize of $200. As a professional he achieved 111 words.
Gus worked for the Underwood speed demonstration team and continued to work for Underwood after he stopped competing.
The family moved to Pasadena, where Gus and an Underwood mechanic started their own business, Crown City Typewriter Co.


Richard P said...

These people seem superhuman to me. It must take a very unusual nervous system!

Robert Messenger said...

It would seem Bessie's nervous system started to crack in competition. Fancy starting at that age!