Frank Edward McGurrin was just 17, a trainee stenographer and a law student when, in 1878, he set off on a quest to find the ultimate speed of a manual typewriter. At Butte, Montana, on May 25, 1891, he reached it: a world record 167 words in a minute, typing one full sentence 10 times and reaching “Now is the time for all good” of the 11th.
Frank was of Irish stock. His surname comes from the Irish Mag Corraidhín, which is derived from corradh, or spear, and when it came to using a typewriter, Frank’s fingers were like rapid javelins. Frank’s father, Manus McGurrin (1812-94), from Crossmolina on the River Dee in the Barony of Tyrawley in County Mayo, arrived in the United States in 1849. Manus McGurrin settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he married a Kilkenny-born woman, Ellen Malone (1829-1894). Manus worked as a carpenter and with Ellen raised a family of nine children. Their offspring included two world record-breaking typists.
Frank McGurrin certainly knew how to spear the typebars of his Remingtons – or should I say not spare the tinny first typewriter’s workings. From 1888 until 1906, McGurrin held audiences spellbound right across the United States and in Britain, typing at such blinding speeds that his typescripts had to be passed out among the crowds, so that people could judge his staggering, near perfect output with their own eyes. McGurrin usually typed blindfolded, and was then only restrained by the dictation of an assistant – he could type far faster than anyone could read the copy and speak the words.
When McGurrin began his quest, typewriters had only been on the market for four years and, regardless of whether they were Sholes & Gliddens or the marginally improved and somewhat steadier version, the Remington No 1, they were still clunky if not solid, the keytops heavy to the fingers and the carriages relatively slow in movement. Any thoughts that typewriters might be operated by a person using all eight fingers and one thumb, or could be used to type 167 words in a minute, were very much a long way distant.
THE TOUCH TYPING TAUNT
In 1878 McGurrin was using a Remington No 1 standard in the offices of New York-born lawyer Daniel E. Corbitt (1835-1921) at 57 Pearl Street, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Corbitt had bought the Sholes & Glidden typewriter second-hand and he and McGurrin competed while practising to use the machine, on which the hefty tug of a string returned the carriage and “a sledgehammer blow was required to depress the keys”. McGurrin proved the faster after some months of rivalry, and Corbitt gave up, turning his attention instead to backing Harry Martin Geiger’s invention of a typewriter-style cash register. But in order to “take the conceit” out of McGurrin, Corbitt concocted a story about seeing a young woman, Lillias Lavina Haney (1856-1933), typing “blind” in the office of Kent county court stenographer Henry F. Walch (1848-1920) at 101 Sheldon Street. Corbitt, talking loudly enough for McGurrin to overhear him, told of how Miss Haney typed quite rapidly from Welch’s dictation while looking out a window. It was not until 1880 that McGurrin met Haney and learned the truth – that she had never attempted to type without looking at the keyboard.
Lillias Lavina Haney
By then, events which would transform the entire history of the typewriter were well and truly underway. Before the end of 1878, McGurrin had firmly established, at least for his own benefit, the tenets of touch typing. “ … boy like, I made up my mind that whatever a girl could do I could, so I set to work to learn to operate without looking at the keyboard. I discarded my former method of two or three fingers and determined to use all my fingers. Before the end of the year 1878 I could write upwards of 90 words a minute in new matter” (that is, previously unseen copy).
In his own little typewriting world, things had moved very quickly for Frank McGurrin with his special skills. Yet astonishingly, given the impact the advent of touch typing would have on the typewriter industry, there was to be a full decade between McGurrin’s mastery of the technique and the wider world finding out about it. In the interim, there was scant recognition of McGurrin’s typing achievements. On September 1, 1881, Ithaca stenographer Theodore Cuyler Rose (1843-1921) gave a talk on “The Future of the Profession” at Palmer House, Chicago, during the convention of the International Association of Shorthand Writers of the United States and Canada. In his speech, Rose said, “Within the past week I saw a young man in an office in Grand Rapids write on a test 97 words on the typewriter and read the copy. He did not look at the machine at all but kept his eyes on the copy.”
Rose’s words about McGurrin, however, remained pretty much confined to those who heard him utter them that day in Chicago. They were not reported in newspapers at the time, but eventually found their way into various magazines and books recording proceedings and transactions of national and state stenography, shorthand and phonography associations. Even then, it would be almost 6½ more years before someone decided to take up their implicit challenge.
In the meantime, McGurrin got on with his life. On July 8, 1885, he was appointed by Michigan Governor Russell A. Alger as official stenographer of the Ninth Judicial Circuit in Kalamazoo (a position in which he was later succeeded by his brother Charles H. McGurrin [1866-1915], who also succeeded Frank as world speed typing record holder). On June 30, 1886, Frank McGurrin married Jennie A. Darling in Paw Paw, Michigan, with Charles as a witness. On September 15, Frank was appointed official stenographer for the Third Federal Court District in Salt Lake City, after a contest against other contenders in which he’d shown “marked ability”. He was to hold the post for eight years.
As for his search for typing speed, McGurrin acquired a Remington No 2. Compared to the Sholes & Glidden and Remington No 1, the No 2 was a vast improvement. It was far sturdier, much better designed and more competently made. Plus it had carriage shift. In an article published in The Phonographic World in February 1889, McGurrin persuasively argued that the carriage shift gave Remington typists a distinct advantage when speed typing against double-keyboard operators. “In typewriting,” he said, “the speed is limited by the action of the mind, and not of the fingers.” McGurrin’s typing system, in which he did not use his left thumb, was to hit the spacebar with his right thumb - he employed the shift key fleetingly with his left little finger – was ideally suited to the Remington No 2. There was no wrist movement. McGurrin wrote, “The method commonly in use, of depressing the shift-key first, and then striking the capital desired, is erroneous. The proper way is to make the depression of the shift-key and the stroke of the letter exactly simultaneous. A perfect capital letter will be obtained in this way without loss of time.”
On June 7, 1887, McGurrin left Salt Lake City on three months’ leave, travelling east in the hope of finding speed typing competition. The Salt Lake City Daily Tribune boldly forecast he would “make the typewriting fraternity there [in New York City] feel like looking around for a final resting place by his unparalleled speed on the machine.”
THE WORLD TITLE TYPE-OFF
Frank McGurrin publically laid claim to being the “first typewriter in the country” (first that is, in terms of speed) in an article announcing his Salt Lake City appointment, which appeared in the Salt Lake Daily Tribune on September 10, 1886. The article went on to report that McGurrin was “willing to put up $500 [$13,500 in today’s money] that no one can beat him”. At the time McGurrin’s top speed was put at 100 words per minute. There were no takers, so McGurrin repeated the challenge in The Typewriter Operator in January, February and May 1888. The last was picked up and reprinted in The Cosmopolitan Shorthander in Toronto, Canada, and finally McGurrin found someone willing to take him on.
Louis A. Traub (1859-1916), a German-born typing and shorthand instructor in Cincinnati, Ohio, had arrived in the United States in 1882 without a word of English. Yet he quickly established himself as not just a typist and stenographer in his newly adopted language, but as a willing and competitive sportsman, always up for a challenge. In September 1883 he won a pedestrian (race walking) match by walking laps to amass 46 miles. Traub also bowled $500 stakes and attended the fight nights at Eureka Hall in the West End.
Initially he worked for A.J. Graham’s Phonographic Academy, but was to take over Longley's Short-Hand and Type-Writing Institute as manager after Margaret Longley joined her ailing husband Elias in Pasadena in 1885. Traub conditionally accepted McGurrin’s challenge on May 27, 1888. One of three revised terms for the typing contest that Traub insisted upon in his reply to The Cosmopolitan Shorthander was that Wyckoff, Seaman & Benedict, makers and sellers of the Remington, must not be involved, nor any other typewriter manufacturers. Traub and McGurrin staked $250 a side.
In a very strange connection, Traub once saved a woman from drowning herself after a domestic dispute, many years before McGurrin was involved in a very similar and in his case far more tragic event. Typing and shorthand aside, the only thing the pair really had in common was that they were both members of the Knights of Columbus.
Graham’s, like most such operations, had a deal with one of the then three extant typewriter manufacturers – in the case of Graham, it was through general agent C.G. Muller with Caligraph, a double keyboard machine with space bars on either side of the keyboard and a long central spring instead of a rear mainspring and drawband. Whatever led Traub to believe this machine could match the Remington No 2’s comparatively compact single keyboard with carriage shift will never be known. With the benefit of hindsight it would seem an impossible task. But Traub had a commercial commitment to the Caligraph company. Admittedly, no one could be certain until Traub faced McGurrin exactly how the Caligraph would fare.
Now called the Cincinnatian Hotel, it was the Bradford Block and the Palace Hotel, on the corner of Sixth and Vine, Cincinnati, when McGurrin and Taub faced off in 1888.
In the event - on Wednesday, July 25, 1888 - the Caligraph fared very, very badly. The showdown started at 10.10am and ended at 12.20pm at the Longley Shorthand and Typewriting Institute at rooms 20-21 Bradford Block in Cincinnati. (The venue was close to what is today the Cincinnatian Hotel.) There was much praise for Traub’s performance in trying to stay the pace with McGurrin, but all could see it was a hopeless cause, and it was the machine rather than the man that McGurrin beat so convincingly. The Cincinnati Equirer reported, “It was evident that Mr Traub could operate faster than his machine would respond.”
The Enquirer had previewed the contest, the first of its kind anywhere in the world, under the banner headlines: “Racing Typewriters. Championship of the World. Crack Operators on Rival Machines”. The event lasted 105 minutes, with a 15-minute rest between 45 minutes of typing from dictation and 45 minutes of typing from copy, all matter being ordinary court proceedings, new to both typists. The second half was a distinct advantage for McGurrin, who didn’t need to look at his keyboard. The judges and timekeepers were leading Cincinnati stenographers and typists Norman F. Dean, Edwin N. Williams and Buchanan Perin. McGurrin won the toss and chose dictation first, with Traub, in another room, typing from copy first. The scores: McGurrin 4294 from dictation (95.55wpm), 4415 from copy (98.11wpm), total 8709 (96.77wpm); Traub 3747 from dictation (83.26wpm), 3191 from copy (70.91wpm), total 6938 (77.01wpm). The margin in favour of McGurrin was 1771 words, or 25.38 per cent. Traub’s inability to type copy “blind” cost him dearly (a 1224-word difference); as well, McGurrin had made few mistakes, while Traub had made plenty. McGurrin had typed at an average of 7½ stokes a second.
The next morning McGurrin gave another exhibition of his typing skills at the Bradford Block, then travelled east to New York City. By this time his Cincinnati achievement had come to the delighted notice of Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict, manufacturers and sellers of the Remington typewriter. The Remington people had never had such positive, widespread free publicity as that generated nationally by the Traub match, and were quick to contact McGurrin and encourage him – with financial inducements - to stay on in the east for a while longer. The company out him up in the Astor Hotel. They were well aware their typewriter’s major test would come up at the first international championship, in Toronto in mid-August, and wanted McGurrin to join their official representative, $4000-a-year copyhouse proprieter Mae E. Orr (real name Mary Orr, 1866-1936) in Canada. Amazingly, Orr was a two-fingered typist, only using the forefinger on each hand.A competition had been set up for Wednesday, August 1, by the Metropolitan Stenography Association of New York at 208 West 21st Street. The association had sent invitations to compete to Remington, Caligraph and Hammond on July 2, and all three had accepted. But when news came through that McGurrin’s Remington had trashed Traub’s Caligraph in Cincinnati, Caligraph and Hammond immediately withdrew from the New York event. The New York Star reported that McGurrin’s “unprecedented record … appears to have had a salutary effect on all rival machines”. Naturally, Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict rubbed their hands in glee at this. Orr was the home town favourite, but was to suffer her first defeat. McGurrin had fewer errors deducted and won the $25 first prize by scoring 479 in five minutes (95.8wpm) to Orr’s 476 (95.2wpm). After the contest, McGurrin grabbed a book at random from the association’s library and wrote blindfolded from dictation 101 words in a minute, still well short of his personal best of 114.5.
Two days later McGurrin addressed an open letter to the Caligraph’s manufacturer, the American Writing Machine Company of Hartford, Connecticut, which was published in The Washington Post. He complained that he had travelled 2500 miles to take on Caligraph operators, and challenged the AWMC to send a representative, at McGurrin’s expense, to New York City, offering a prize of up to $500. The offer wasn’t taken up; Caligraph bided its time until the Toronto championships. Perhaps it believed that stiffer opposition than he had encountered in Cincinnati might catch McGurrin by surprise.
McGurrin had suggested tests of 30 minutes or more for his New York challenge, but he was always willing to “consent” to one-minute exhibition sprints, which often involved repeating the sentence “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party”. McGurrin consistently maintained, however, that he placed little store in the outcomes of these fast bursts of typing, and only indulged in them because “operators of rival machines resort to such one-minute tests in order to produce misleading results. I attach no importance to them”.
McGurrin’s barb was at least in part directed at the Caligraph exponent Thomas W. Osborne (1860-1931), a Philadelphia-born stenographer with Vacuum Oil (and formerly with Little & Griffith) in Rochester, New York, about whom both the Caligraph’s manufacturers and the typist himself made some extraordinary speed typing claims – few of which were borne out by his efforts in competition.
Osborne carried Caligraph’s hopes into the first official world championships, staged by the Canadian Shorthand Society at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall on Monday, August 13, 1888. The 10 entrants had to type five minutes of legal testimony and five minutes of ordinary correspondence, all new matter to them. It did prove a very different proposition to Cincinnati, but not in terms of an improved Caligraph showing. McGurrin was unable to hold off Remington teammate Orr, who typed 987 in the 10 minutes to McGurrin’s 950.11. Osborne was third with 935. George McBride of Ottawa, also on a Caligraph, finished fifth, a creditable effort given, to his considerable annoyance, his machine broke down twice.
Notwithstanding the embarrassment its typewriter had caused McBride, the American Writing Machine Company, makers of the Caligraph, went to extraordinary lengths (and expense) to try and convince the North American public that Osborne and Caligraph had triumphed in Toronto. Newspaper advertisements for the Caligraph blatantly lied, claiming Osborne typed 627 words correctly and manipulating the true figures outrageously. The subsidiary event Osborne did “win” was not the world championship itself, for which Orr awarded a gold medal, but a “memorised sentence” contest. Entrants had been given two months to memorise “This is a song to fill thee with delight”. Osborne “won” a silver medal with an average 126.4 “words” a minute, beating McGurrin on 122.66. But what Osborne typed was pure gibberish. At a generous estimate, he actually typed 144 clear, complete words in five minutes, not the 630.7 gross (646 net) he was awarded, so his average was in reality was 28.8, almost 100 wpm short of the score given him. Charles Vonley Oden, in his Evolution of the Typewriter (1917), liberally allowed that Osborne wrote the sentence correctly just twice (18 words), but in the absolute mess Osborne handed in it is very difficult to make out even that much. Osborne’s jumbled words place in doubt other efforts he has been credited with, such as averaging 142.6 wpm in five minutes and typing 179 in one minute and 99 in 30 seconds at G.S. Walworth’s Typewriting and Stenography Institute in Brooklyn on February 27, 1889 (typing “This is how I do it” repeatedly). After this Osborne disappeared from the speed typing front and moved to Hartford, Connecticut, to take up other lines of work.
Notwithstanding Caligraph’s nonsense about Osborne’s feats, McGurrin was most unhappy with the way things had worked out in Toronto.
TO BE CONTINUED