The National Speed Contest is almost as old as the Association. With its debut in 1909 at Lake George, N.Y., the first contest marked the beginning of one of two great eras of championship steno writing. The first era was dominated by Pitman and Gregg pen writers and didn't end until 1927. The second era ushered in machine shorthand writers. This modern series of speed contests began in 1952 and continues today. It's still the most difficult and challenging test of skill and endurance a reporter can face.
So why would anyone want to create a speed contest in the first place? A national speed contest was the perfect platform for reporters to demonstrate their ability to write shorthand. Add to this mix the very real need for role models in a burgeoning verbatim reporting field and the chance to expose fraudulent claims of stenographic skills in the 400 to 600 wpm range, and it becomes clear how important and integral the National Speed Contest has been to the history of reporting.
The First Era: Pen Writers
All of the entrants in the first National Speed Contest in 1909 were pen shorthand writers who used the Isaac Pitman system or one of its many variations. Contestants were required to hand in transcripts of only two readings, one of testimony at 280 wpm and one of a jury charge. Two jury charge takes were dictated - one at 200 wpm and one at 220 wpm - and the contestants had the option of transcribing either of the jury charge dictations and the testimony take. Willard Bottome, an official reporter of the New York Supreme Court for 17 years, won the contest.
The following year, NSRA introduced the three readings that became standard: literary material at 200 wpm, jury charge at 240 wpm and testimony at 280 wpm. (The winner was another New Yorker, Clyde Marshall.)
Nathan Behrin, a newcomer to the ranks of contestants, won the championship in 1911, and dominated the annual contests through the year 1914, with new records of accuracy. Also competing in 1911 was 19-year-old Charles Swem, another writer who would become a dominant force in contest writing. He surprised the Pitman writers as the first Gregg shorthand writer to qualify on two of the contest readings. Before that, the Gregg shorthand system had been largely dismissed by Pitman aficionados as incapable of contest speed.
The National Speed Contest of 1914 was momentous because a group of stenotypists, ages 15 to 19, entered for the first time and stunned the veteran pen writers by winning the 200 wpm literary (Fanny Schoenfeld) and 220 wpm literary (Clem Boling). Nevertheless, Nathan Behrin won the overall championship because the stenotypists could not stay with him on the 280 wpm Q&A.
Confronted by this sudden challenge of machine shorthand to the supremacy of pen shorthand - not to mention the very livelihood derived from it - the shaken leaders of NSRA held a late-night bull session where they decided to eliminate speed contests at future Association conventions.
The Speed Contest resumed five years later in 1919 without stenotypists. (They wouldn't be invited again until 1952.) The contest was won by Jerome Victory, writing Osgoodby shorthand.
Lurking behind the scenes of the shorthand speed contests was the intense competition between the Pitman and Gregg publishing companies to gain a foothold in the high school shorthand departments of the nation. It became an important part of their advertising claims to be able to point to the National Speed Champion as a user of their system.
From 1922 to 1927 the competition heated up between the Gregg and Pitman camps, with Nathan Behrin and Solomon Powsner on the Pitman side and Charles Swem and Martin Dupraw on the Gregg side.
In 1926 the literary was increased to 220 wpm and the jury charge to 260 wpm. The testimony, which had been dictated by one person who voiced the words "question" and "answer," was changed to two-person dictation, with the words "question" and "answer" no longer pronounced or counted in the word count, resulting in an increase in speed from the previous 260 to 280 wpm.
After winning for the third time in a row in 1927, Dupraw retired his championship cup. That year also marked the last time a speed contest would be held by NSRA until the era of the machine shorthand speed contest began in 1952.
The reason for the discontinuance? Perhaps Nathan Behrin said it best at the 1927 Convention: "The thing that does irritate me and actually hurt me is the report that goes out, in heavy type so that none can help but read, that the contest is won by a young boy still in his teens, and that in capturing the speed trophy this young boy, who is not a reporter, has defeated expert court reporters of many years' experience.
"It is this misuse of speed contest results which is hurtful to the profession. It is no longer a case of reporters sitting down in good fellowship to make a trial of their skill, and then all applaud the winner. It is now a race between the reporter on the one hand and the trained contestant on the other. People who do not make shorthand reporting their main calling, judges and lawyers, conclude this skill can be acquired easily in a short time, so why pay these reporters great salaries?"
Along with these sentiments from the reporting profession was the ongoing nettlesome problem of commercial misuse of contest results by both the Gregg and Pitman companies. Not only that, contestants complained that there was a monopoly of contest winners - three or four individuals who won year after year, allowing no other writers to compete at the enhanced speeds.
So, the pen shorthand era of the National Speed Contest ended on a sour note. But the astonishing records of accuracy still stand the test of time.
The Second Era: Machine Writers
After a quarter century of deep sleep, not unlike Sleeping Beauty, the National Speed Contest was awakened with the proverbial kiss, courtesy of two princes - Joseph Sweeney of California and Nathan Behrin of New York. Once again, the contest would be an important part of the program of every NSRA Convention.
The 1952 National Speed Contest was an open competition. The speeds were identical to those from the last contest held in 1927. All of the entrants were machine shorthand writers.
The winner was Arnold Cohen of New York, who established a record on the 220 wpm literary of one error, followed closely by his twin brother William. In 1953, the Cohen twins tied in the San Francisco contest, making the same number of errors, albeit different ones, on each take and tied the record of two errors on the 280 wpm Q&A reading set by Martin Dupraw in 1926. The next year in Cleveland, Ohio, Arnold won once again (William didn't enter) and retired the contest trophy.
William came back to the contest in 1955 and won that year and the following two years for good measure, establishing a record of two errors on the 260 wpm jury charge. After his third win, he too retired the trophy.
Up until 1960, the National Speed Contest was dominated by contestants from New York. Craig Wallace, of Washington, D.C., ended that streak when he won the 1961 contest. The West Coast made its mark in 1964 when Erwin Goodman of Los Angeles, Calif., won the contest.
The 1965 contest saw another first - the winner was a woman, 28-year-old Alberta Buster, a freelance reporter from Chicago, Ill. She did it again the next two years and retired the trophy.
For most of the '70s, Charles Boyer and J. Edward Varallo proved to be the crème de la crème of contest winners. Boyer won in 1971-1973, establishing a record of one error on the 230 wpm legal opinion. But it was Varallo who performed a spectacular feat: a perfect score in the 280 wpm testimony reading in the course of winning the 1975 contest. And, his total of six errors on the three readings was also a best ever in the contest's history.
After winning in 1974, 1975 and 1976, Varallo retired from competition, at least for the subsequent decade. In 1977, for the first time since Nathan Behrin had won in 1914, Charles Boyer returned to the winning fold for the fourth time.
The next year Diane Kraynak of Michigan emerged the winner, ushering in the gradual dominance of the championship by the distaff side. Unfortunately, Kraynak wasn't eligible to compete again the next year because of a new, but short-lived, contest rule that barred a winner from entering the following year.
In 1979, Houston's Peggy Antone walked away with the championship trophy. When asked how it felt to win, a modest Antone said simply, "Unexpected."
Kicking off the 1980s, Charles Boyer visited the winners' circle for the fifth time, tying the record set by Nathan Behrin.
Diane Kraynak recaptured the championship in 1981, and again in 1982, nosing out Boyer by one-tenth of a percentage point.
In this nip-and-tuck series, Charles Boyer won for the sixth time in 1983, establishing a new record for number of times as champion.
In 1985 Diane Kraynak returned for her fourth win. This contest also marked the emergence of computer-aided transcription. Of the 46 entrants, 16 opted to transcribe on CAT. And last, but not least, Charles Boyer became the first to produce a perfect paper on the 230 wpm legal opinion.
In 1986, after a 10-year absence, J. Edward Varallo returned to triumph over several former champions. Diane Kraynak established a new record on the 220 wpm literary take, submitting a perfect transcript.
Karla Wollin Boyer (Charles Boyer's wife) won the contest for the first time in 1987, making this couple the first husband and wife to have both won the contest. (They had met at a speed contest in 1977 and were married in 1982 - perhaps revealing another side to the contest, one of camaraderie and a time for socialization.)
In 1992 Diane Kraynak won for an unprecedented seventh time on a difficult test that reduced the number of qualifiers to a handful.
At the 1993 NCRA Convention in San Francisco, Candace Braksick won the contest for the second time in four years, with a combined score of 99.75. Second-place honors went to Karla Wollin Boyer, who had recently won Intersteno's World Championship in Turkey - the only American so far to win that contest, and she has done it four times!
In 1994 Braksick won for the third time. Her combined score was 99.91, including one perfect paper in the 280 wpm testimony. Her total score of three errors remains the best ever in contest history.
When contestants gathered in 1996 in San Diego, Calif., they witnessed a remarkable comeback by former champion J. Edward Varallo. Varallo is the only speed contest winner to come out of retirement after 10 years to win, then turn around and do the same thing again after another 10 years!
Wendy Shade took first place in 1997. Mark Kislingbury of Houston, Texas, distinguished himself in the 220 wpm literary portion of the contest with no errors.
In 1998 Karla Wollin Boyer captured the championship trophy for the third time.
What is it about a speed contest that makes it much more difficult than any other reporting test? Nathan Behrin once said, "To one unacquainted with actual contest conditions, it would seem strange that a professional shorthand reporter, occupied for the greater part of the year in the writing of shorthand, should find it so difficult to participate with any degree of comfort in a shorthand contest. The truth is that the writing of the spoken word … in a contest calls forth a different response from that when taking testimony in the familiar court environment. …
"On-the-job reporting is poor preparation for contest writing, where no allowance is made for experience in reporting, and only one side of his work is put to the test, namely, the ability to write shorthand. The reporter contemplating taking part in contests must undergo the discipline of writing from dictation at contest speeds, and he must develop the endurance to write for a specified period of time without pause."
Both champions and qualifiers on past National Speed Contests know the truth of Nathan Behrin's statements. While it is true that everyone can't be the winner, we owe kudos to those superb writers who have missed capturing the speed contest trophy by just a hairbreadth or two.
How will the speed contest of the future work? Will the rules change as technology affects reporting tools and systems? It's anybody's guess, but one thing is certain: If future contests are anything at all like their predecessors, the reporting industry can look forward to intense competition from contestants in top form and many record-breaking scores along the way.
Special thanks to Bill Cohen for providing much of the material for this article.