Listen to this episode and find out more about it at theallusionist.org/wpm.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, leave a flaming paper bag full of language on your doorstep.
Coming up in today’s show are feats of speed and endurance, albeit ones which don’t require getting up out of a chair.
There is one swear in this. See if you can spot it.
This episode is sponsored by our fine friends at Oxford Games, who make lots of extremely fun games that you can play with all the family, you can give them as gifts, you can break them out on a random weeknight with your friends and laugh till you hurt, as I did last night: had a very lively game of Flummoxed, in which you write a definition for a word that is convincing enough that your rival players think it’s real. I enjoy a game that rewards good bluffing skills, which I have (or do I? How will you ever know?) AND I also learned a lot, because Flummoxed features words from 120 different languages, I’d never even heard of some of the languages. There are plenty more word-based games available from Oxford Games, such as Ex Libris and Anagram, and myriad other games - they invented Jenga! You can shop the full range at oxfordgames.co.uk, AND you Allusionist listeners can get a 20% discount on your order with the code ALL20. They deliver worldwide, so head to oxfordgames.co.uk and remember to use the discount code ALL20 to get 20% off..
On with the show.
HZ: I can type 71 words per minute.
MARTIN AUSTWICK: Ooh!
HZ: Yeah, it’s a good speed when you go to a temping agency and they’re like, “Brilliant, we can get you some minimum wage jobs!” But I bet some of you can type faster. Do I hear 85? 90? Do we have any over 100? What have you got?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: 104!
HZ: Do we have anything to beat 104?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: 122!
HZ: 122! Who goes higher than 122?
MARTIN AUSTWICK: No one.
HZ: Sorry: 122 is impressive in this room; but I once went onto the website typeracer.com, and you can see this guy, Ern, is on 291 words per minute. 291 words per minute!
MARTIN AUSTWICK [sings]: 291 words per minute
HZ: That’s not an official record, to be fair. Guinness adjudicators are not standing by as people compete on typeracer.com. The Guinness world record for typing speed was held by the late Barbara Blackburn. There are two kinds of typing contests: sprints, and marathons. And Barbara was a champion of both: During minute-long speed tests, Barbara could type up to 170 wpm on typewriter or, on a computer, 212 words per minute.
MARTIN AUSTWICK: 212 words per minute
HZ: And in endurance tests she could type 150wpm for 50 minutes.
MARTIN AUSTWICK: 150 words per minute, for 50 minutes
HZ: To show off her world record-breaking achievement, in 1985 Barbara was invited onto the David Letterman show, to race against the fastest typist on Letterman show staff - also called Barbara. But Barbara Blackburn sabotaged the contest.
David Letterman: You know... you didn’t have any paper in there.
Barbara Blackburn: I realise that.
David Letterman: I guess it’s easy to say you’re fastest when there’s no way to prove it, is there?
Barbara Blackburn: I foxed you!
HZ: So that time she scored zero words per minute.
MARTIN AUSTWICK: Zero words per minute;
there was no paper in it.
HZ: Why, Barbara, Why? Why didn’t you want a fair fight against other Barbara? Were you operating a big con to be the world’s greatest typist?
You know the QWERTY keyboard layout that’s usually on everything, designed in the 1870s to reduce the likelihood of typewriter keys getting jammed by keeping common letter pairings separated from each other?
A world record-breaking typist like Barbara Blackburn don’t fuck with QWERTY.
Barbara Blackburn used the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, invented in 1932 by Seattle-based psychology professor August Dvorak, his objective: to make the keyboard more efficient, all the vowels on the left, the most common consonants on the right, the least used letters in the bottom row.
On an average day, the fingers of a typist like Barbara Blackburn would travel 16 miles across a QWERTY keyboard, but typing the same text on the Dvorak just one mile.
More efficient, fewer errors, less hand fatigue, fewer typing injuries, more speed.
In the typing competitions in the 1930s, the Qwerty competitors asked to be seated separately from the Dvoraks, who were typing so rapidly, the Qwertys were getting depressed.
Making Barbara Blackburn type on a QWERTY keyboard for her big typing dual on Letterman? That’s like sending an Olympic snowboarder down the slopes on an ironing board.
MARTIN AUSTWICK: There's no way
Barbara could win it.
HZ: People can type faster than Barbara Blackburn, but she still holds the world record, kind of, because Guinness has got rid of that category since. There are still a bunch of typing world records you can beat, if you want - fastest typing with your nose, fastest time to type the alphabet blindfolded, fastest time to type a text message while performing head spins.
But Barbara Blackburn didn’t need any of those gimmicks. She didn’t even need paper.
MARTIN AUSTWICK: Barbara didn’t need a gimmick.
212 words per minute.
HZ: And what became of the Dvorak keyboard? If it’s so great, why’s it not the default keyboard everywhere, why has it faded into obscurity, buried in your system preferences?
Is it timing? The Dvorak was patented in 1932, during the Great Depression; a bad time for inventions to take off.
Or did the Dvorak keyboard arrive too late, and QWERTY had already achieved unstoppable market domination?
Was it too much hassle to retrain typists to use the better keyboard?
Is it because the benefits of the Dvorak layout had maybe been exaggerated by its creator, August Dvorak?
Or was the Dvorak keyboard doomed by a 1956 study insisting that the Dvorak was no better than QWERTY, and may in fact be worse - that study spearheaded by Dr Earl Strong, who when asked for the data he’d gathered about the superiority of the QWERTY over the Dvorak said he’d destroyed it, Earl Strong who had a personal grudge against August Dvorak?
After three frustrating decades of trying to get his keyboard to catch on, August Dvorak said, “I’m tired of trying to do something worthwhile for the human race—they simply don’t want to change!”
Is it because the human race simply doesn’t want to change?
Or is the world just unfair?
MARTIN AUSTWICK: Victory doesn’t always come
to those who deserve it.
HZ: Have you followed the sporting career of Marcellus Wiley? He’s now a host on ESPN. He was a American football player, he played ten seasons for the NFL, he was voted into the NFL top 50 players twice, he competed in the NFL Pro Bowl. To be honest, I don’t know what any of that means - that’s just words tumbling out of my mouth. I don’t care about American football; I don’t care about sport, unless that sport is typing.
But before ESPN, before all the American football, Marcellus Wiley was a different kind of athlete: a keyboard athlete. More than twice as fast as the other kids in his high school typing class. In 1988, aged 14, he won a national typewriting championship, with a speed of 82 wpm.
MARTIN AUSTWICK: 82 words per minute
HZ: He was always faster than the other schoolkids, faster on the track, faster on the field, faster on the keyboard.
MARTIN AUSTWICK: 82 words per minute.
HZ: In 2003, I, Helen Zaltzman, was a recent graduate. I was struggling for work, so I took some below minimum wage work that I did from home. I was pretty depressed and there was no point getting dressed most days. The job involved rewriting press releases about mobile phones into articles that looked like news.
What did mobile phones do in 2003? Nothing! They just made calls!
One day, there was a phone that had a special feature: a menstrual diary. That was a stand-out day at work. But on the whole, the job was very boring, so I used to do it whilst watching television, and this was 2003, so there was no Netflix, no YouTube; so what there was to watch were endless repeats throughout the day of Columbo. And there came a point where I realised that I could do my job without looking at the keyboard at all. I had inadvertently learned to touch type! (Columbo taught me to touch-type.)
Not well enough to be a champion of typing. But enough to be a champion of temping.
I was the toast of London’s temping agencies. At one point I had seven jobs at the same time. The highlights: I would go to a rich businessman’s house every Saturday so he could dictate a book to me. It was initially a book about business management, then evolved to be about also Indian mysticism, and then also a bit of a memoir, and then also about bridges - but only metaphorical ones.
Where did those metaphorical bridges lead?
MARTIN AUSTWICK: We will never know;
the book was never finished.
HZ: I also compiled book indexes. You probably think a robot does that job. I was cheaper than a robot.
I had a job as a TV logger: that’s where you type up every piece of raw footage shot for a TV show.
I worked on a reality TV show set in a salon - I had to type up the camera feed from the room where people got back, sack and crack waxes.
The best temping typing job was on a reality TV show in which eight people competed to become the best spy. They were being trained by retired CIA and MI5 operatives wearing hilarious wigs as disguises. I typed up hundreds of hours of them sitting in a shed running surveillance ops, or tailing members of their family without being caught; or being bundled into vans in the middle of the night, forced into stress positions and interrogated. And at the climax of the series, the winner...did not get to be a spy. Because, if you’ve won a televised competition to be a spy, you don’t get to be a real spy.
So they weren’t really winning anything. And I wouldn’t win anything either typing 71wpm.
MARTIN AUSTWICK: 71 words per minute.
HZ: Typing competitions were invented by typewriter manufacturers to show off how their typewriters were better than their competitors’ typewriters. An Underwood typewriter would go up against a Remington, like how in Formula 1 a McLaren races a Ferrari. These events were a big deal: people were typing at Madison Square Garden, wearing evening gowns.
1906 was the first world typing championship, And there on the right is the first ever typing world champion, Rose Fritz. She was only 17. She held the title for four years, broke every record. And remember that typewriters at this stage were very stout machines, you really had to hammer the keys - Rose Fritz’s fingers must have been ripped.
But she stopped competing in 1909: let others have a crack at being world champion; let her have a crack at being just a normal woman turning 20, living her life; too much too young can wreck a person.
She topped out at 115 words per minute.
MARTIN AUSTWICK: 115 words per minute.
The greatest of all time was a woman from St Louis, Missouri, named Birdie Reeve.
Birdie Reeve left school after sixth grade. But by the time she was sixteen, she had compiled eight dictionaries, she was a chess champion multiple times, even played twenty separate opponents simultaneously and won all twenty games, whilst, by the way, playing blindfold.
She could type at record-breaking speeds whilst reciting the Gettysburg Address, and other fancy shit. She’d do special effects typing too: she’d roll a sheet of metal into her typewriter, so the typing sounded like a runaway train.
Her father had invented a technique for her to type faster using only two fingers on each hand in a V formation. But the official typing competitions because those specified typing with all the fingers, so Birdie Reeve was banned from entering. So instead, she found another channel for her talents: vaudeville.
So between the elephant stunts and minstrels and other entertainments problematic by today’s standards, you would have seen a woman typing. Really fast. Up to 300 words per minute.
MARTIN AUSTWICK: 300 words per minute
HZ: But for all that talent, for all that vocabulary, for all that chess, even Birdie Reeve couldn’t sustain her showbiz career. By the late 1930s, when she was only in her early 30s, she was placing ads in a local newspaper looking for work. That was the last I could find of her.
But with her typing skills, she could have been the greatest temp of all time.
MARTIN AUSTWICK: 300 words per minute
300 words per minute
300 words per minute.
Today’s episode is sponsored by Babbel, the number 1 language learning app in the world. It’s the quickest funnest way to become conversant in a new language - there are fourteen to choose from, and you just need to find ten to fifteen minutes a day to do the interactive lessons and quizzes via desktop or the Babbel app, whether you’re a complete beginner or an advanced speaker who wants to brush up. You can also buy a Babbel course as a gift for someone, which I think would be quite a lovely thing to be given. Go to babbel.com and use the offer code ALLUSION to get 50% off your first 3 months.
The Allusionist belongs to Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best podcasts around. And two - two! - are made by our magnificent friends Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer: Criminal and This Is Love. Criminal is the classiest show about crime, and just passed its hundredth episode; and This Is Love has just returned for a second season, telling stories of love that comes in many different forms. This show is beautifully done and full of surprises, and you can find the new season and catch up on the first one at Radiotopia.fm.
The other week I mentioned a few podcasts at this point in the show, and a bunch of you said, “Great! More please!” So how about Science Vs - because I know you have a taste for shows that are educational and entertaining, and Wendy Zuckerman is a very fun host to spend time with as she pits science versus online dating, CBD, plastic straws, a 19th century whodunnit. Search for science v s in your favoured podcast directory.
We podcasts exist thanks to you delightful listeners. Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
kalpa, noun: (in Hindu and Buddhist tradition) the period between the creation and end of the world, reckoned as 4,320 million years, and considered as the day of Brahma.
Try using it in an email today.
‘WPM’ was written and spoken by me; the music and singing is by Martin Austwick.
To go with this piece, one of my favourite illustrators, Eleni Kalorkoti, did a very pretty kind of retro typing artwork, which is available on Tshirts and totes and even baby onesies - visit theallusionist.org/merch to get them. On tour, the tote bags were a particularly hot seller; they come in sizes from laptop-compatible to laundry-compatible. Also available are Winterval tops featuring a multidenominational riff on the festive sweater.
For that merch, and event listings, reading lists for every episode topic, transcripts of the episodes, all the randomly selected words of the day, visit theallusionist.org.