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Monday, 10 May 2021

Typewriter Champs Denied the Chance to Emulate Babe Zaharias’ Olympic Glory

Babe Zaharias. a champion of everything, including typing.
Clara Decima Norman and Esther Jane Williams learned typewriter skills at high school and, in Norman’s case, went on to make a good living from typing (Williams’ fortune came from a somewhat more glamorous and lucrative occupation). But they were both to regret their dreams of winning gold medals at the Olympic Games being ended by circumstances way beyond their control – the cancellation of the 1940 Tokyo and Helsinki Olympics. But for war, Norman and Williams might have realistically expected to emulate the legendary Mildred Ella "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias, a champion speed typist who ranks with Jim Thorpe as the world’s greatest ever all-round sportsperson. As Babe Didrikson, Zaharias won three Olympic Games medals, two of them gold, at the first Los Angeles Olympics, in 1932. The finest female athlete of all time, she was a champion golfer, track world record holder, All-American basketballer and a star baseballer. She also played softball, tennis and pocket billiards (pool), shot, boxed, wrestled and rowed, and was a diver,  swimmer, roller-skater and a tenpin bowler. So adept was Zaharias at a typewriter from an early age that, in 1925, at just 14, she wrote 42,000 words of an early autobiography, The Story of My Life, as her high school typing practice in Beaumont, Texas, and won a gold medal with 86 words a minute. Decima Norman later achieved similar proficiency at a typewriter, and like Zaharias was outstanding in a wide range of sports. Williams, however, had set her sights on goals beyond mere sport and typing by the time she graduated from George Washington Preparatory High School in Westmont and went to Los Angeles City College.


Frankly, I still can’t see the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games (rescheduled for July 23-August 8 this year) going ahead. Forging on with plans to stage the Games strikes me as reckless in the circumstances. But there need not be a cancellation, as there was for the 1940 Tokyo Olympics. On July 31, 1936, the International Olympic Committee, meeting in Berlin, awarded the 1940 Summer Games to Tokyo.  The Second Sino-Japanese War, which broke out on July 7, 1937, intensified the next year and on July 15, 1938, the Japanese cabinet approved the cancellation of both the Summer and Winter Olympics. The latter were set down for Sapporo in early February 1940 and subsequently awarded to St Moritz in Switzerland then Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Nazi Germany. Like the Summer Games, they were not held. On July 19, 1938, Finland accepted the IOC’s invitation for Helsinki to stage the 1940 Summer Games, but these were cancelled on April 23, 1940.


Three weeks later, on May 13, the 18-year-old Esther Williams, the champion Californian breaststroke swimmer who had been considered a certain medallist at the 1940 Olympics, accepted her Olympic dream was over and turned professional. She joined the West Coast version of Billy Rose’s “Aquacade” a music, dance and swimming show. Williams replaced Rose’s wife, 1932 Los Angeles Olympics gold medallist, Eleanor Holm. Williams went on to star in “aquamusicals” for MGM, including portraying Australian Annette Kellerman in “Million Dollar Mermaid”. Williams wrote an autobiography with the same title. She died of natural causes in her Los Angeles home on June 6, 2013, aged 91.

Esther Williams as a student at George Washington Preparatory High School in Los Angeles, where typing was among her classes.

By 1982, West Australian athlete Decima Norman had come to fear war would interfere in her life twice. She had been appointed custodian of the baton for that year’s Brisbane Commonwealth Games, at a time when Britain was at war in the Falklands. “War stopped my career before,” Decima said. “I hope it doesn’t interfere this time.” Fortunately, hostilities ended in the Falklands on June 14, five days before Decima flew to London with the baton. The baton relay started with the English Queen handing it to a British runner, and Decima then brought it back to her home town of Albany in Western Australia, from where it was relayed to Brisbane. On September 30, with Decima watching on, Raelene Boyle brought it into QEII Stadium and handed it to the late Duke of Edinburgh.

Decima Norman never used starting blocks, yet ran 11sec flat for the 100 yards.

The Brisbane Games were the third hosted by Australia – the first being the Empire Games in Sydney in 1938 and the second in Decima’s home state of Western Australia, in Perth in 1962. Decima attended all three, in 1938 as the single most dominant competitor (five gold medals in six track and field events at the Sydney Cricket Ground), the second and third as a guest of honour. In 1962 she was working as the dining room manager at the Kogarah RSL Club in Sydney when she was invited to return to WA to attend the Games opening at Perry Lakes Stadium. In the absence of a state athletics body, Decima had been denied the chance to compete at the 1934 London Empire Games and the 1936 British Olympics, so she helped form a state association herself. In Sydney in 1938 she made up for lost time.


Dubbed by newspapers as “Dashing Des”, the “Silver Streak” and the “White Flash”, Decima was not quite in the Betty Grable league – nonetheless her legs were ensured for £500 when she returned to Sydney, this time to compete and settle there, in early 1939. Decima’s sprinting style was derided by all, included herself (she “ran like a hen in flight” according to her coach), but it was sufficiently adequate to carry her to gold medals at the Empire Games in the 100 and 220 yards, the long jump and in two relays. Her five golds remained a Commonwealth Games record until Canadian swimmer Graham Smith grabbed six in Edmonton in 1978.


Decima was an experienced and highly proficient typist and promises of work, including one at a newspaper, had lured her to Sydney in 1939, where she knew conditions and competition would boost her Olympic Games chances. She was ranked seventh in the world in the long jump in 1940, plus seventh in the 200m and sixth in the 80m hurdles.

Decima in 1982 with her long-time partner, New Zealander Eric Hamilton.

The planned 1940 Tokyo Olympics were cancelled five months after the Sydney Empire Games ended, and Decima had then set her sights on Helsinki. Six months after the Finnish Olympics were called off, Decima announced she was retiring from athletics. A decade later her Australian records began to fall. Hours after being presented with an MBE by Prince Charles on April 8, 1983, Decima was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with cancer. After almost five months of treatment in Perth, she died there on August 29.

Friday, 7 May 2021

In Praise of the Typewriter: The Early Days of American News Agencies

“By far the most important and valuable improvement in the efficiency of the electric telegraph in the past three or four years has been brought about by the introduction into telegraph work of a machine that has absolutely nothing electrical about it. While not all inventions that give added efficiency and greater advantages to the community contribute increased comfort to those required to use them, some rather entailing more laborious work or more fatiguing and trying conditions to the individual, the use of this invention has rendered easy and pleasant a class of work that was tiring and nerve-wearing in the extreme. The thing that has done all is the typewriter. This marvellous little labour-saver and life-lengthener has become absolutely indispensable in several of the more important branches of the telegraph service, a necessity to the complement of every first class operator, and soon its lively patter will be the unvarying accompaniment to the brisk clicking of the sounder in every telegraph office in the land.”

So wrote noted English-born journalist, and former telegraphist, Samuel John Pryor (left, 1865-1924) in his introduction to a lengthy article headed “The Typewriter: First Lieutenant to the Telegraph”, published in W.H. Temple’s weekly, the Electricity newspaper on December 9, 1891, and illustrated by H. Dearborn Gardiner. Given the typewriter, at its conception, was primarily aimed at just such work, it may seem odd that it took until 1887 or 1888 for its true virtues to become fully appreciated at major news agencies such as United Press* and Associated Press. Pryor says AP first introduced typewriters “as an experiment” into its offices in 1884, 10 years after the typewriter first went on the market. According to the article, UP and AP only started using typewriter “exclusively” in all their offices in 1889.

(*This United Press, formed in 1882, is not to be confused with the later wire service which became known as UPI. The original UP collapsed in late March 1897, owing the Western Union Telegraph Company $207,000, after New York newspapers the Times, Herald, Tribune and Evening Telegram, as well as the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph, ditched UP and switched to AP, leaving the New York Sun as UP's last user.)


Pryor quoted UP superintendent Frederick N. Bassett as saying “There has been a revolution in telegraphy” [Yes, a typewriter revolution!] Bassett went on, “It is the typewriter, backed by its ally the Phillips code, that has accomplished it.” (In Phillips’s 1897 book Sketches Old & New, the author rated Bassett as one of the eight best telegraphists he had ever worked with.)


The Phillips code was developed by Walter Polk Phillips (right, below, 1846-1920), like Pryor a journalist and telegraph operator. His was a brevity code which, for example, introduced to America the abbreviations POTUS and SCOTUS. Phillips was general manager of UP from 1882 until 1897.


Born in Grafton, Massachusetts, Phillips started work as a messenger with the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1861. He became an expert telegrapher, noted for his speed in sending and receiving messages. Within three years he had risen to be a reporter in charge of copying AP news despatches. His skill caught the attention of Samuel Morse, who  praised him for his “dexterity” in the use of Morse code as well as his “faultless manner of recording” messages. Phillips won telegraphy contests, in one setting a record by accurately transcribing 2731 words in an hour (45.2 wpm). He joined AP in 1867 and was made manager of its Washington DC bureau the next year. In 1875 he persuaded AP to establish America's first leased wire, for press service, linking New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. Determined to make the AP the fastest news service in the US, he revised the existing abbreviations and codes used in the transmission of press stories and in 1879 published the first edition of the Phillips code. As an inventor, he patented an improved form of hand key and with Roderick H. Weiny invented a single line repeater known as the Weiny-Phillips. He was joint inventor of the first successful semi-automatic key, the “Autoplex”, patented in 1902 by Horace G. Martin.

Pryor pointed out that before typewriters were introduced to these wire services, night reports in total averaged 8000 words and an entire day’s reports totalled about 18,000 words. With the use of typewriters, the night reports total rose to 14,000 words and the day’s total to 30,000 words. Operators wired stories at 40 words a minute and with typewriters reporters wrote reports at 70 words a minute. Producing carbon copies was also made significantly easier. The Phillips code almost doubled output and on one occasion UP wired a news special of 3500 words to all the newspapers receiving its service within 55 minutes. Typewriters improved the services immeasurably, allowing for longer stories, more stories and later breaking stories. Remingtons were preferred (AP abandoned all other models) but Caligraphs were also used.

Note the Caligraph

Samuel John Pryor, the author of this article, was from 1918-20 the first Press Secretary for the British Royal Family at Buckingham Palace. Pryor was born in Clifton, Derbyshire, England, in 1865 and started work at 16 as a telegraph clerk himself, in Wakefield, Yorkshire. Seeking journalism work, he went to the West Indies and at 24 was editor of the Gleaner in Kingston, Jamaica. He moved to the US in 1889 and returned to England in 1896. After working for, and editing, leading newspapers in America (including the New York Sun in 1894) and Britain, and covering the Boer War, his newspaper career ended as day editor and a director at The Times of London (1909-18). He had been managing editor and a director of the London Daily Mail from 1896-1900, then moved to the Daily Express and from 1904-05 was editor of the St James Gazette and Evening Standard. In 1907 Pryor was editor of the brilliant but short-lived Liberal daily the Tribune. He died in 1924. 


The Commercial Cable Company, whose operators are shown on the front cover of  this issue of Electricity, introduced 100 typewriters to its New York office in February 1891. It paid employees an extra $1 a week to learn to use them proficiently. The CCC was founded in New York in 1884 by Irish-American industrialist John William Mackay and New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett Jr. The technology CCC used was already well established. It laid cables from Waterville in Ireland to Canso, Nova Scotia. Submarine connections from Waterville to Weston-super-Mare in England and Le Havre in France were soon established after initial use of landlines from Waterville to mainland Britain. In the US CCC distributed its cable traffic through its partner firm the Postal Telegraph Company.


And then there was the typewriter in the dental surgery!?

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Making Typewriter Desks

Popular Science, January 1956
I felt inspired and, in more ways than one, deeply moved by Ryan Adney’s touching blog post from last week, “TI-99/4A Play-and-Display”. My own father lived to the age of 73, the age I am now. I was 33 when he died, after a series of strokes in 1981, and while this situation was very different from Ryan’s, I had little idea at the time of my dad’s passing just how much it would affect me in the 40 intervening years. I miss him more every day. My paternal grandfather, also Robert Messenger, died suddenly from an aneurysm in October 1919, leaving my father, then aged just 12 years and two months old, the eldest male still living at home with his family. His eldest brother had died from wounds suffered in the Battle of Ypres in 1917, the next two were both serving in the merchant navy and the fourth, Robert Rex Messenger, had died from blood poisoning as a child. So my father had to leave school and find work to support his widowed mother, younger sister and three younger brothers. His great wish was to become a carpenter, but he was eventually found work (by an elder sister) as an apprentice tailor. He made a huge success of a career thrust upon him, yet not once in his subsequent life did he let go of his passion for carpentry. His skills as a home handy man were amazing. Among the many things I’d seen him build was a beautiful desk for me when he gave me an Underwood Champion portable typewriter back in 1957.


It was with this in mind that I was reminded - upon reading Ryan’s post about building a cabinet to house a TI computer in memory of his dad - to go back and look at Popular Mechanics magazines with plans for a typewriter desk. Popular Science and Popular Mechanics offered a lot of ideas for such things, over many years, and my father had also built 14ft sailing boats following plans published in these magazines. Plans for a typewriter desk that I glimpsed a week or so ago and which had appealed to me appeared in the March 1952 edition of Popular Mechanics. When I first saw it, I very quickly moved  on to something else for a blog post idea, thinking this would be way beyond my own range of carpentry skills – as much as I was able to learn from my late dad (high school carpentry lessons were completely wasted on me). My father, of course, would have had no problem making such a thing. But now, after reading Ryan’s post, I’m having second thoughts. My wife’s first husband, who died many years ago, was a carpentry teacher, and I’ve “inherited” most of his tools. Armed with these, I just might be up for the challenge. And with the first blasts of winter arriving today, it’s probably a good time to start thinking about working inside my shed. If this one proves beyond me, I can always try something a little simpler from among the earlier plans outlined here. Something rustic, perhaps?

From Popular Mechanics, October 1936:
From Popular Mechanics, February 1938:
From Popular Mechanics, January 1968:
From Popular Mechanics, November 1950:
From Popular Mechanics, December 1937:
From Popular Mechanics, July 1968:
From Popular Mechanics, February 1926:
From Popular Science, June 1942:
From Popular Science, February 1972:

From Popular Science, June 1921:
From Popular Science, May 1940:
From Popular Mechanics, October 1925:
From Popular Mechanics, September 1917:
From Popular Mechanics, June 1917:
From Popular Mechanics, May 1921:
From Popular Science, October 1920:
From Popular Mechanics, 1910: