March 27

Walter Nurnberg's frontispiece from his "Words In Their Hands"

The second National Typesetting Tournament ended March 27, 1886 in Philadelphia, with a compositor named Alexander Duguid establishing a record for fast typesetting which has never been surpassed. Among the contestants were the professional swifts, men who engaged in contests for cash prizes in all parts of the country. During the last decades of the 19th century, printers bet their wages on speed typos in the same manner that their contemporaries wager on the fourlegged speedsters going for the mile and an eighth. Such excitement was generated at the contests that the International Typographical Union found it necessary to set up rules and regulations for their conduct.

The Philadelphia contest was reported by the Printer’s Circular:

“At the beginning of the contest, Joseph McCann, of the New York Herald, the exchampion, gave indications of winning the first prize; but after the first day, W.C. Barnes, of the New York World, the champion, led for the two succeeding days. He then gradually dropped to third place, which he held to the close. McCann then went to the head of the list, which position he held to the last day, when Duguid put on a little extra steam when he began work in the afternoon, his score then reaching for the hour and a half, 3,388 ems, which he exceeded, however, in the evening, attaining a mark of 3,476 ems, beating his previous record and any heretofore attained anywhere. His total day’s work of three hours was 6,804 gross ems, reduced to 6,635¼ems by 6¾ minutes required for ‘correcting.”

As this was the only tournament in which Duguid had ever participated, he was a “busher” in the eyes of the pros. Perhaps to put him in his place by indulging in a bit of grand-standing on the last day of the tournament, the great Bill Barnes of the World demonstrated his virtuosity as one of the great swifts of the times.

He set 2,744 gross ems in an hour and a half with the cases reversed, that is, the cap case being transposed to the position of the lower case. During the evening session he set 1,635 ems in an hour and a half while blindfolded, the copy being read to him by another comp. In this feat, Barnes made six typographical errors.

Barnes, Canadian born, had won first prize in a number of contests previous to the Philadelphia match. It was said of him that he used liquor as a medicine only, ate his meals regularly, and slept exactly eight hours per day. To these temperate habits Barnes attributed his better than ordinary powers of endurance, nerve, and speed at forty-three years of age.

Resting upon his laurels, the winner of the event, Alexander Duguid, never again participated in speed typesetting contests, thus retiring undefeated.

Under the rules of the Tournament the type used was nonpareil [6-point], set to a measure of 28 picas. Since most present-day compositors have occasion to set hand type only in display sizes, they would be horrified at having to set even one line of 6-point to a measure so wide. By the turn of the century the speed contests were a thing of the past, Mr. Mergenthaler’s machine having taken over straight-matter composition on most of the daily newspapers which had helped to produce the high speed typos.

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