25 things vanishing in America, part 2: Professional typists

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The first practical typewriter was invented by Christopher L. Sholes in 1868, launching an industry that would provide work for millions of the nimble-fingered, primarily women. He was also responsible for the QWERTY keyboard, which slowed the typist so that the typebar did not jam. Sadly, with the advent of the computer, the job of typist has all but disappeared from the American want ads.

For decades, large corporations employed typists by the thousands, all-but-anonymous key wranglers who worked in typing pools turning scrawls into professional letters, memos and reports. In 1960, for example, one in ten Americans worked as a secretary, stenographer or typist. An important landmark in any executive's career was the day he (and it was almost always a he back then) was assigned a personal secretary, rather than share use of the pool.

These typists were capable of astonishing (to those of us with stupid fingers) speed and accuracy. Current holder of the fastest typist title, Barbara Blackburn, has reached a speed of 212 words per minute, with a sustained speed of 150 words per minute. She uses the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, which puts the most commonly used letters in the most easily accessed locations.

However, progress has left most of the typing jobs in the dust. The computer, which makes correcting mistakes so easy, has led to the expectation that many mid-level executives will handle their own correspondence. Also working against the typing industry in the U.S. is the Internet. Bulk typing needs such as medical transcription can be sourced to typists in India and other English-speaking countries, at a much lower cost. The upcoming perfection of voice recognition software should be the final nail in the keyboard's coffin.

I'm frankly amazed that after 30 years of using computers I'm still pecking away at my keyboard. I expect, however, that we will finally be freed from the keyboard within the next decade. Future generations will probably look back at the era of the keyboard with amazement, that so many people could spend so much time with such an inefficient, frustrating input device.

Still, there was something awe-inspiring about watching a skilled typist treat a typewriter like Horowitz playing Rachmaninoff.

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