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Friday, 6 July 2018

On Board with the World's Fastest Typist: Otis Blaisdell's Grand World Typewriter Tour - 15 Nations in 12 Months (And Mom Went Too)

Harrison Otis Blaisdell (1886-1960)
Otis Blaisdell with an Underwood No 4 in 1910. For his exhibitions across America and around the world, Blaisdell often spurned the use of "souped up" championship-ready Underwood 5s, to prove he could type just as quickly on ordinary "stock models".
'He typed like a maestro plays a piano': An indication of Otis Blaisdell's
remarkable drawing power on his world tour was this large audience
for his speed typing exhibition in Melbourne, Australia, on October 24, 1919.
Harrison Otis Blaisdell emerged from the 437th Detachment of Engineering Corps of the US Army at the end of World War One, immediately rejoined the Underwood speed typing battalion at 30 Vesey Street, New York, and prepared to embark on a victorious worldwide campaign of his own. On July 2, 1919, the 32-year-old Blaisdell and his mother, Eudora Eleanor 'Ella' Blaisdell, 57, set off on the Niagara from Vancouver for Australia, arriving in Sydney on August 11. It would be almost a full year (August 8, 1920), before they returned home to New York, on the Imperator, from Southampton in England. In the intervening 12 months they had toured Australia (Blaisdell thought Tasmania was a separate country!), New Zealand, Singapore and the Straits Settlements (some of the latter are now part of Malaysia), Sumatra (now part of Indonesia), Borneo (now divided between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei), Java (Indonesia), Hong Kong, China, Japan, the Philippines, Burma (now Myanmar), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India, South Africa and finally England. And at every port of call - including Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, Wellington, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Shanghai, Hankou, Osaka, Kobe, Yokohama, Manila, Rangoon (now Yangon), Madras (Chennai), Bombay (Mumbai), Calcutta (Kolkata), Colombo, Cape Town and London - Otis Blaisdell gave well-attended demonstrations of his speed typewriting skills. He and his mother were not all that long back in the US before Underwood sent them packing again, first to Mexico in 1921, then Puerto Rico in March 1922 and finally to Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil in 1924. 
Oddly enough, the very day Blaisdell left New York, Typewriter Topics announced, he had married "a former Underwood girl", Elsie Brendgen (1899-1977). Maybe her husband's travelling didn't appeal to Ms Brendgen. In 1928, Blaisdell married, this time to attractive divorcee Mary Dorothy Moran (right, 1898-1976). And that marriage, apparently, lasted less than six years.
Blaisdell's mother, 'Ella' Blaisdell, née Otis (1861-1947)
Underwood paid for Blaisdell's mother to go along with him on these trips because, as Underwood Vice-President Clinton Lawrence Rossiter (1860-1925) explained to Robert Lansing, Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State, "Mr Blaisdell is the sole support for his Mother, who now resides with him in New York City, but as we wish Mr Blaisdell to be prepared to spend as many months in the Far East as may be necessary, it is quite imperative that his Mother should accompany him - not only from a financial point of view but also on account of the prolonged separation. We also believe Mr Blaisdell's work will be conducted to better advantage if he has his Mother with him and is free from any worry as to her welfare while away." Ella Blaisdell also wrote to Lansing (under a Underwood letterhead) explaining that she had been divorced in Chicago in 1908.
At the various places Otis Blaisdell visited on his whirlwind 1919-20 world tour, he was taken care of by the Underwood Typewriter Company's overseas agents, who organised his typing demonstrations. These included:
Australia: Stott & Underwood (see previous posts for the history of this company).
New Zealand: Stott & Hoare (the original name of the Australian company)
Ceylon (Sri Lanka): Founded in 1844 by British businessman William Milne, who was joined by David Sime Cargill in 1850. 
Hong Kong, China, JapanDodwell & Co was one of the leading British merchant firms, or hongs, active in China and Japan during the 19th and 20th centuries. Its forerunner was W.R. Adamson & Co, founded in Shanghai in 1852 as a result of the efforts of a group of Cheshire weavers who needed to increase supplies of raw silk for their mills. Branches were set up in Hong Kong, Foochow and Hankow. It was the first of the British merchant firms to venture into Japan, opening a branch in Yokohama in the early 1860s. In 1872, the firm appointed a shipping clerk in its Shanghai office named George Benjamin Dodwell (1851–1925). Dodwell secured in 1887 the agency for chartering and managing ships on behalf of the Canadian Pacific Railway between Hong Kong and Vancouver, thus establishing the first regular steamship line across the Pacific. He formed Dodwell & Co in May 1891. Shipping agency and tea trading were major concerns and by the turn of the century it could claim to be the largest shipping firm on the Pacific coast. Dodwell Co acted as the exclusive agent for the chartering of ships by the Japanese government during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05. Its Japanese trading business expanded further through the export of coal to Singapore and Shanghai, and the shipment of Japanese straw braid from Kobe for Europe. During World War One Dodwell's shipping business boomed with the chartering, bunkering, and sale of Japanese steamers to the Allied powers.
BurmaSiegmund Oppenheimer & Co of Rangoon handled a diverse range of goods - from Underwood typewriters to engineering and building materials to wines and spirits, military equipment, tents, wolfram-ore bags, hospital furniture, police uniforms, orchids and elephant harnesses. It is now a branch of the Innwa Bank. Oppenheimer & Co was founded in 1885 by Siegmund Oppenheimer (1858-1920). He was the founding president of the Rangoon Trades Association.
Philippines: The origins of Smith Bell & Co date to 1838, when a young Scotsman named James Adam Smith was sent to the Philippines to look after the interests of Jardine Matheson & Co. Six years later, after establishing good connections, Smith went into partnership with Henry Constable and Robert Philip Wood. This partnership eventually served as the foundation of what was to become Smith Bell & Co. In 1880, the Philippines experienced one of its worst rice shortages because of milling inadequacies. Responding to this acute situation, Smith Bell operated its own fleet of lighters and inter-island steamers, and the company was able to distribute rice to the southern provinces. It also also had to cope with the sugar shortage crisis. Smith Bell established the Luzon Sugar Co, the first sugar refinery in the islands, a few miles north of Manila. Coinciding with the extension of free trade between the US and the Philippines, Smith Bell was incorporated in 1909. World War One gave Smith Bell a chance to achieve maximum prosperity as products such as copra, hemp and sugar were in great demand and the islands imported more manufactured goods.
India: Y. Narayan operated a typewriter supply agency on Esplanade Row, George Town, Madras, and produced its own typewriter manual for the Indian market. We have no information on the major Underwood agency, Warden & Co.
Singapore, Straits Settlements, Sumatra, Borneo and JavaPaterson, Simons & Co was an early trading company in Singapore whose origin can be traced back to 1821. It played an important part in the early commercial development of the colonial state. It stemmed originated from Holdsworth, Smithson & Co, a business established in Singapore in 1821 as a branch of the London and Liverpool merchant firm, Rawson, Holdsworth & Co. In 1828, William Wemyss Ker went to Singapore and joined Holdsworth, Smithson & Co. He was admitted as a partner in 1830. Following the retirement of Holdsworth and Smithson, the firm was renamed Ker, Rawson & Co in 1835. William Paterson and Henry Minchin Simons, who had been assistants in the company in the mid-1840s, were admitted to the firm as partners in 1853. In 1859, Ker, Rawson & Co was dissolved, and Paterson, Simons & Co was formed, Ker, Paterson and Simons as the founders. This company exported tropical produce of all kinds - such as rubber, copra and pineapples from Malaya, Borneo and the East Indies - to Europe and other countries, and imported merchandise including cotton goods and other manufactured products from Europe and the US. It also acted as an agent for shipping lines, insurance companies, industrial enterprises and state governments. By the beginning of World War One, the firm had become the agent and secretary for 16 planting and rubber companies, and it had branches in Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Klang and Port Swettenham. Today the company is headquartered in Britain, with operations throughout West Africa.
Otis Blaisdell's passport photo in 1919.
Otis Blaisdell, was born on October 23, 1886, in Chadron, Dawes County, Nebraska, and trained at a business school in Chicago with the aim of becoming a court stenographer. Blaisdell was working for American Express in the Windy City when, aged 19, he first stormed on to the speed typewriting scene, in March 1906. He typed 141 words a minute for 30 minutes to finish second to defending American champion Charles McGuerin at the National Business Show on March 19 and the next night lost to the legendary Rose Fritz in a blindfolded competition, with 66wpm. In the first world championship, at the Madison Square Garden in New York City in November 1, 1906, Blaisdell again finished second to Fritz, with 64wpm. These performances had Underwood rushing to sign him up for $5000 a year for its championship team, and Blaisdell moved to Flatbush, Brooklyn, and joined Underwood at Vesey Street, New York City, in April 1907. He failed to make the placings at that year's world championship, but his speeds began to improve markedly under Charles Smith's coaching. He won his first title, the American championship, in Chicago in February 1908, with 88wpm, better than Fritz's 87 in retaining her world title four months earlier (Blaisdell was third with 80).
Blaisdell was undoubtedly the Roger Bannister of the typewriter. Whereas Bannister broke the four-minute mile barrier in 1954, it was Blaisdell who first broke through the 100 words per minute typing speed limit in 1909. And his achievement came in equally inauspicious surroundings. Before the Missouri Valley Commercial Teachers' Convention in St Joseph on November 27, 1909, Blaisdell typed 6184 words of unfamiliar matter in an hour, at an average of 103wpm. This broke Fritz's world record, set at the world championships in the previous September, of 95wpm (with Blaisdell second on 92wpm). Just as Bannister was to be, Blaisdell was feted around the globe for his amazing skill at the keyboard - in Blaisdell's case, he was broadly heralded as "The Fastest Typist in the World". [Bessie Friedman was the first woman to achieve the feat of 100wpm over an hour, with 107 in Spokane in 1912; Florence Wilson reached 112 later the same year.] 
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 30, 1910
For three years from 1909, Blaisdell's efforts on behalf of Underwood were concentrated on training for (four hours daily, "as carefully as a prize swimmer or popular pianist") and performing in speed typing championships and travelling across the US exhibiting his typing talents. In the absence of Fritz, Blaisdell finally gained the world title at Madison Square Garden on October 27, 1910,  with 109wpm. The previous month he had beaten Fritz in Hartford, Connecticut, 107 to 104. To celebrate his championship triumph, on November 18 Blaisdell reclaimed the out-and-out speed world record from Florence Wilson (134), with 135 words from printed matter in a single minute, without errors, at Council Bluffs, Iowa. It was an effort he was to repeat in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1912.
Blaisdell created another milestone in retaining his world championship with a "regular stock" Underwood at Madison Square Garden on October 26, 1911.  His winning score of 112wpm established that someone could type for an hour faster than the average person could talk. On this occasion he beat Fritz (third, 107) as well as Wilson (second 110). But the following year Blaisdell was to be dethroned by the mysterious, mercurial Florence Eliza Wilson (1894-), the petite Saratoga stunner whose 117 pushed Blaisdell back to third (115 after two many errors). Emil Trefzger was second (116), Margaret Owen, ominously for an amateur, fourth (114) and Fritz fifth (113).
The fetching Florence Wilson (above and below), who fleetingly graced the championship speed typing arena before disappearing into obscurity in 1913.
While Owen (1913, 15, 16, 17) and Trefzger (1914) won the next four world titles, Blaisdell became more of a demonstrator than a competitor, but, with her mother Louise, accompanied Owen on her national tours. Blaisdell also became increasing involved in the technical side of typewriter design and manufacture, leading ultimately (in 1926) to him one of the patentees of improvements to Underwood's combined typewriter-calculator. This project came under the wing of Elliott-Fisher after it was merged with Underwood in 1927. Blaisdell went on to the sales and education division of Underwood-Elliott-Fisher on Madison Avenue in 1935.
After being put in charge of the Underwood display at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco in 1915, Blaisdell spent Christmas and the New Year in Hawaii (image below) where he added to his typing performances by taking his Underwood completely apart and quickly reassembling it. Blaisdell was also Underwood's manager at the 1916 Atlantic City Exhibition. No doubt his subsequent experiences as a master engineer, senior grade, with the US Army in 1917-18 added to his broad mechanical expertise.
Blaisdell's profound knowledge of the workings of Underwood machines was in large part behind the company's decision to send him Down Under - and elsewhere - in 1919. He was to concentrate his demonstrations and promotion as much on the Underwood bookkeeping machine as on the typewriter. And as he was travelling on a commercial business passport, he needed an export licence from the US War Trade Board to do so. The board was created by President Wilson in 1917 to control imports and exports, before these duties and functions were transferred to the Department of State in July 1919. 
Blaisdell's Australasian tour was all the more important to Underwood because, since being introduced to this country on a properly promoted basis in 1908, its typewriters had struggled to make major inroads in the market here. Canadian William Alexander Lingham had tried to recruit state agents across the newly federated nation in 1902, but generally failed. Underwood's Australian and New Zealand agents, Stott & Hoare, did not have an extensive network of outlets. That was one of the reasons why, in July 1908, Remington's long-standing head of exports, George Henry Richards, arrived in Australia with his Melbourne-born wife to take his company's agency from Stott and negotiate a new deal with ChartresSix weeks later Stott signed up as Underwood agents, taking over from John Sands (the Australian organisation became known as Stott & Underwood in September 1909). Just before the introduction of its first portable, Underwood felt Blaisdell's tour would would greatly heighten the Far East profile of the Underwood 5 and the business machine. Certainly, in terms of the typewriter, that proved to be the case. In particular, the massive publicity generated by Blaisdell in Australia in late 1919 and New Zealand in early 1920 could hardly have failed to achieve its aim.
In later life, Blaisdell went to work for IBM on Madison Avenue and died there on May 16, 1960, aged 73. He is buried at the Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn.

1 comment:

Johnpyyc said...

Amazing how fast these people could type on manual machines! I am astounded st their feats especially when you think about typing for one hour nonstop. Amazing story, thank you Robert.