How do you represent a language, consisting of tens of thousands of characters, on a personal keyboard? For a hundred years, the Chinese have been contemplating the same question.
Since the turn of the 20th century, inventors across the globe have attempted the seemingly impossible feat of transposing a vast, non-alphabetic language onto a workable keyboard. Beginning with a large, tray-shaped apparatus invented by a Chinese man living in San Francisco in the early 1900s, the evolution of the Chinese typewriter has moved at a fast pace, resulting in machines made during the 1950s and 60s that were so complex that some argue they paved the way for modern computing.
Despite this, the very idea of a Chinese typewriter has long been cause for mockery in Western culture, treated as either an absurd fantasy or backward reality.
References to the imagined machine are littered throughout popular music, media and television, representing the contraption as impossibly complicated, large and inefficient. In his music video to ‘U can’t touch this’, 90s rap artist MC Hammer names a signature dance move after the Chinese typewriter, recognizable for its rapid, frenetic movements. The dance steps are meant to imitate the impossible speed at which a Chinese typist would have to work at to navigate what MC Hammer imagines to be a Byzantine and colossal keyboard.
“The Chinese typewriter is completely lampooned in popular culture,” says Thomas S. Mullaney, Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese History at Stanford. “It’s considered a joke. But it’s not a joke - it’s just extremely difficult to make one. It’s like calling all physicists idiots before the splitting of the atom. Just because something is complex does not necessarily make it ridiculous.”
And he should know. Mullaney is in the process of writing the world’s first history of the Chinese typewriter.
Mullaney’s research began in 2006, when he was organizing a speaker series on the subject of disappearance. “In writing the capstone essay for the series, I touched on the issue of the disappearance of certain Chinese characters over time.” In discussing how printing presses decided on which characters to include and which to leave out, Mullaney realized that the same could be said for typewriters. “Did China have typewriters? I had no idea,” he says.
After spending some time searching the Internet, Mullaney made an amazing discovery: as early at the turn of the 20th-century, patent records were in existence for Chinese typewriter designs. The more he dug, the more evidence for Chinese typewriters he found.
Mullaney describes his initial research as a period of breathless excitement. “I might find a cache of 20 patent documents, within which would be the names of other companies that were collaborating or funding the development of Chinese typewriters, or other patent documents.’” After following these leads, another 100 documents might appear, which, in turn, would produce another set of sources.
Through his research, Mullaney discovered a “golden era” in Chinese typewriter production between the 30s and early 50s. During this period, the proliferation of printing had political implications in the ease in which flyers and pamphlets could be mass-produced. During the subsequent twenty years, inventors both in China and abroad continued to design increasingly complex machines, revolutionizing Chinese office work and gaining popular commercial appeal.
Although designs vary, inventors of Chinese typewriters over the ages have generally worked towards the same objective: to allow for the most commonly used characters to be accessible at the greatest speed possible. In achieving this, designers relied on engineering far more complex than that of the Western typewriter, exploring such sophisticated concepts as pen-based machines that anticipated words producing much the same effect as modern predictive text messaging. As a result, late electric Chinese typewriters began to look very much like early computers.
“Computer engineers working with Chinese systems were dealing with that stuff in the 1960s and 70s because they were trying to work out any way possible to make these machines faster,” says Mullaney. “I think, because of the challenge [Chinese typewriters] presented, they pushed designers to go further and further.”
There is even a suggestion that the processes employed in the making of Chinese typewriters may have directly impacted the development of modern computers. One engineer, now living in the Silicon Valley region of California, claims that through his experimentation with Chinese keyboards, he invented the first word processor. Although Mullaney is reserving judgment until he has investigates the engineer’s story further, he sees potential in the claims. “It makes a lot of sense that word processing originated in someone’s effort to produce Chinese characters on the page. The implications would be huge.”
Once complete, Mullaney’s book will assume an important place in the cultural history of modern China. “People assume that there were no great inventions in China in the twentieth century. This is a major concern in China, where there is an effort to move away from ‘made in China’ to ‘invented in China.’” says Mullaney.
Mullaney is also aware of the implications, should he discover strong evidence of a link between the Chinese keyboards and early computing. “There’s a chance that, if I follow the river long enough, it will spill into a huge ocean,” he says.
However, Mullaney is not about to make this the main objective of his research. “I am hesitant to announce to myself right away that this is about the modern computer,” he says. “The invention of early Chinese typewriters presented an incredibly interesting and important intellectual and technological puzzle for engineers and it is important not to downplay this.” Without a connection to modern computing, the history of the Chinese typewriter is a spectacle on its own. Mullaney adds, “If, instead of spilling into the sea, the river goes off a cliff, there will still be a beautiful waterfall.”