Barbara Blackburn, the World’s Fastest Typist
Mrs. Barbara Blackburn of Salem, Oregon maintained a speed of 150 wpm for 50 min (37,500 key strokes) and attained a speed of 170 wpm using the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard (DSK) system. Her top speed was recorded at 212 wpm. Source: Norris McWhirter, ed. (1985), THE GUINNESS BOOK OF WORLD RECORDS, 23rd US edition, New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.
What is the secret as to how Barbara Blackburn could type so fast? The key, so to speak, is in the keyboard design. Blackburn would type on nothing but the Dvorak keyboard, which has vowels on one side and consonants on the other, with the most frequently used letters on the center row. “It makes much more sense than the standard, so-called Qwerty keyboard (named after the first five letters on the top row),” Blackburn said. In fact, it was the Qwerty keyboard that was her undoing in high school typing class back in Pleasant Hill, Missouri.
“Typing was the bane of my existence.” She remembered how her I-minus (I for Inferior) typing grade kept her from graduating at the top of her class. As it was, she graduated third in a class of 46 students. In 1938, as a freshman in business college, Blackburn first laid hands on a Dvorak keyboard. She took to it like a fish to water. In only a few years her speed was up to 138 words per minute.
Blackburn had been such a whiz in her other high school classes, it was no surprise that she would attempt to better her record as a typist, given a chance. The Dvorak keyboard was what gave her the chance. When a representative of the Royal Typewriter Co. came to her business college looking for someone to train as a demonstrator of the Dvorak keyboard, she decided to give it a try.
In no time at all she was as good a typist as she was a bookkeeper and stenographer. She had won statewide contests in the latter two fields as a high school student, but the woman who taught all three courses at Pleasant Hill “was ashamed to admit I was in her typing class,” Blackburn remembered.
Carrying her own Dvorak typewriter with her wherever she worked after graduation from business college, Blackburn’s extraordinary talents paved her way. From 1939 to 1945 she worked as a legal secretary, and when she decided she needed a change of pace and left the law firm, “I left with the reputation as the best legal secretary in Kansas City,” she proudly recalled.
Suddenly there was a mad scramble of executives trying to nab her for their personal secretary.
Blackburn next worked at an electronics company, first as office manager and then as a sales engineer. She did speed typing demonstrations at the Canadian National Exposition and the Canadian Educational Conference. It was then that she was clocked for the the Guinness Book of World Records, in which she was listed for a decade as the world’s fastest typist (the category has since been removed). Blackburn went to work at State Farm Insurance in Salem, where she was employed in the word processing department until she retired in 2002.
Also, she starred in a television commercial for Apple Computers, which offered a switchable Dvorak-Qwerty keyboard with its Apple IIc model. When she was in New York to tape the commercial, she appeared on the David Letterman Show. But Letterman made a comedy routine out of what she thought was to be a serious demonstration of her typing speed, and Blackburn felt hurt by the experience. In her own words:
“The show aired on Thursday night, after I had returned back to Salem. They had taken my PR photo and blown it up to gigantic size) with the typewriter sitting on a stand (covered with a Plexiglas cover) in front of me and a little to the side with three men seated at a table with a big copy of my Thursday night paper sitting on an easel at the side. My photo took up the entire area behind the men. Letterman was standing beside the typewriter – his opening remark was “No doubt Ms. Blackburn is a very nice lady, but she has to be the biggest fraud and con artist in the world.” That he is still running it about every year completely astounds me! I have a complete tape of all of my TV appearances during my publicity reign, but I REFUSE TO WATCH THE LETTERMAN FIASCO.”
In the intervening years, Letterman’s comedy style has become better-understood and we’ve grown more accustomed to it. Nevertheless, anyone who has seen her whizzing fingers in action, as well as the flawless results on paper (her error frequency is two-tenths of one percent), can have no doubt that Barbara Blackburn will forever hold her place as the world’s fastest typist. Mrs. Blackburn passed away in April, 2008.
— End —
Permission granted to post Article about Barbara Blackburn by Sonya Pulvers (Barbara Blackburn’s daughter)
From: Sam Sent: 07 January 2014 22:32
To: Alison Fourie
Subject: Re: Feature article on website
Thank you so much for asking permission. Absolutely that would be fine, my mother was an incredible woman and an icon when it comes to the world of typing.
Have a great day.
Sonya Pulvers (Barbara Blackburn’s daughter)
From: Alison Fourie
Sent: Jan 7, 2014 5:22 AM
Subject: Feature article on website
I would like to ask your permission to place your article about Barbara Blackburn http://rcranger.mysite.syr.edu/famhist/blackburn.htm on my website http://www.amftyping.co.za. I run a typing company and I found your article very interesting, and would love to display it on my website.
Looking forward to hearing from you.
AMF Typing Services©® Est 2001