In the mid to late 1800s mechanical writing technology was relatively rudimentary and prototypes of the first commercial typewriter were being developed. Newspaper publisher and Wisconsin politician Christopher Sholes is credited as having designed the first practical and commercially successful typewriter in 1868. His daughter Lillian Sholes acquired fame as the world’s first typist. As typewriters became standard office equipment in the late 1800s and early 1900s, typing and shorthand speed emerged as an important secretarial qualification. Typing contests were popular and often used as promotional tools by typewriter manufacturers.1
The earliest world typewriter championships were held in North America in the late 1800s using Remington and Caligraph typewriters, but these were designed more to test the machines than the typists using them. In 1906 the first truly formal World Typewriting Championship was held in Chicago. Its winner was Rose Fritz at 82 words per minute, and she continued on to win the next three successive annual competitions. Other notable winners in the first half of the century were George Hossfeld who won the competition ten times, and Albert Tangora who won it seven times. Tangora set a world record speed for continuous typing on an Underwood Standard manual keyboard for one hour at 147 words a minute on October 22, 1923. After a rest period, he typed 159 words in a one-minute “sprint”. His record over the one-hour period has never been exceeded on a manual typewriter.2
Another famous champion typist was Birdie Reeve Kay, born in Chicago on January 16, 1907. She was able to type at speeds of over 200 words, or 800 letters, per minute, using two fingers of each hand spread out in a V formation, a method invented by her father. Birdie was described in vaudeville acts as the ‘World’s Fastest Typist’ and was also notable for a very large vocabulary and her exceptional skill as a chess player.3
The question of who is (or was) the fastest typist in history is quite a tricky one, due to the fact that typing speed can be measured in numerous ways. The debate centres around variables such as keyboard layout, the use of numbers and/or letters, language, error rate and corrections, whether autocorrect or predictive features should be allowed, the duration of testing (one minute seems to be the official standard), and whether words per minute (WPM) or the less common measure characters per minute (CPM) should be used. In the era of typewriters, speed was measured with a stopwatch and errors were tallied by hand, however modern technology allows word-processors to be used as a composition aid and more sophisticated metrics such as error rate can be calculated via computer algorithms. Such algorithms are able to measure statistics such as key strokes per character (KSPC), which take into account the use of backspace to delete errors.1
The fastest verified typing speed in history appears to have been achieved by Stella Pajunas-Garnand, also from Chicago, at 216 words per minute, in 1946 in one minute on an IBM electric typewriter.1 When you consider that professional typists are expected to manage around 80 words per minute on a computer keyboard, this was a truly outstanding achievement!
More recently, Barbara Blackburn was credited by the Guinness Book of Records (2005) as the fastest English typist in the world, however as mentioned earlier, there is debate about how this should be measured. Using the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, Mrs Blackburn, of Salem, Oregon, maintained 150 words per minute for 50 minutes, and 170 words per minute for shorter periods. Her peak speed was 212 words per minute. Amazingly, Blackburn failed her QWERTY typing class in high school, however after first encountering the Dvorak keyboard in 1938, she quickly learned to type at impressive speeds, and even toured giving speed-typing demonstrations during her career! She died in April 2008.1
A number of competitive typing websites have emerged online in recent years, allowing fast typists on computer keyboards to create instant records, although these are difficult to verify. According to Wikipedia, “Two of the most notable online records that are considered genuine are 241.82 wpm on an English text on typingzone.com by Brazilian Guilherme Sandrini (equivalent to 290.184 wpm using the traditional definition for words per minute since this site defines a word as six characters rather than five) and 256 wpm (a record caught on video) on TypeRacer by American Sean Wrona, the inaugural Ultimate Typing Championship winner, which is considered the highest ever legitimate score ever set on the site.” These records are sprint speeds lasting much less than one minute and were attained on a computer QWERTY keyboard. Wrona also managed 174 wpm on a 50-minute test taken on hi-games.net, another online typing website to unofficially displace Blackburn as the fastest endurance typist, although the difficulty of the texts and the use of a modern computer keyboard as opposed to a typewriter might create disputes in choosing an overall winner.1
Although recent records garnered online are quite likely genuine, without standardised testing conditions across all contestants it is almost impossible to definitively crown history’s fastest ever typist. In our view, Stella Pajunas-Garnand’s record of 216 words per minute stands the test of time, making her the fastest typist in history!