To make a typewriter for Chinese along the same lines as the typewriters we all are familiar with would require a keyboard so big that nobody could reach the middle of it. Because each character in Chinese is (by and large) a syllable or a word*, such a keyboard, thinking in terms of an English comparison, would need to have the same number of keys (plus key shift options) as there are entries in the dictionary and then some, as you’d need to conjugate and decline too. The Remington Typewriter Company, founded in 1816, was the early brand leader in “English-language” typewriters. They claimed their machines were universal, but this required them to turn a blind eye to the Chinese language.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Chinese were determined to overcome the problem and they set about solving the conundrum along three avenues: firstly, restrict the number of characters to the most frequently used 2,000 to 3,000 — surprisingly this actually takes care of a good deal of what anyone might normally need to communicate. (By the 20th century there were over 85,000 characters in the Chinese lexicon.) Then secondly, look at dividing the characters into constituent parts and combining these separate parts to create a variety of characters. This proved almost impossible to work out because of aesthetic concerns about fit and size variation. Thirdly, simplify Chinese script — not something anyone other than the odd enthusiast was prepared to consider.

The solution used in the first working Chinese typewriter was to abandon the idea of a keyboard, and put in its place a rectangular tray carrying little metal characters. The tray, about 18″ x 9″, carried about 2,500 individual characters and offered the chance of substituting some special characters to customize the machine to particular subject matter. The typist moves the tray about to locate the required character, then pushes a lever to cause the mechanism to pick up the sort and bang it against the paper. Chinese typing was always a bit slow. By rearranging the characters in the tray so that characters frequently occurring together were placed adjacent to each other, individuals were able to get their speed up to 3,000 an hour in the revolutionary period. Attempts to standardize this sort of thematic arrangement always failed and by the 1980s manufacturers would supply the tray bed empty, so that each purchaser could load the characters in their own personal layout.

This slightly hazy video shows the system in operation.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

The adaptation of telegraphy to Chinese took a different tack. There all the characters were assigned a four-digit numerical code, arranged in the sequence of number of strokes, a method often used in China for ranking in the absence of an alphabet. This involved the printing of directories showing the numerical code for each character, which the operator would have to look up. An efficiency break-through came when someone reprinted the book with all the characters beginning with the same two digits printed on one page. This meant that rather than flicking through the pages of the directory the operator could go straight to, say, page 32 to find the character 3261 which he’d just received. Cumbersome, but better than not having access to the telegraph at all. The work was slowed down by the fact that the digits in Morse code are all five clicks long, so it took longer to type a message than if they had had fewer clicks — though of course no character was longer than four digits, twenty clicks.

In 1947 Lin Yutang came up with a working prototype of a typewriter which contained over 8,000 characters, plus a system of partial characters which would enable the typing of every known Chinese character. He named it MingKwai, meaning Clear & Fast. It worked on the basis of a series of 8-sided metal bars, each face engraved with 29 characters. Six of these bars were mounted on a rotating mechanism. There were five more such 6-bar mechanisms which would rotate around one another as well as rotating themselves. The keyboard didn’t activate a character; it directed the machine to the character to be printed. A group of eight characters would be summoned up by two keystrokes; a third stroke using the number keys at the bottom of the keyboard would select the character in that location and print it onto the paper. All was going well when Lin ran out of money just in time for the whole project to be engulfed in the revolution and subsequently the Korean War, making foreign investment impossible to come by. The single prototype machine was apparently chucked out by Mergenthaler Linotype later on. Future archaeologists, please be on the look out. It may be rusting away in the Freshkills landfill.

This information is gleaned from The Chinese Typewriter: A History by Thomas Mullaney (MIT Press, 2017), a strangely fascinating volume which tells the totally unsuspected story of an object one had always thought of as utterly mundane. The book was reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement of 1 June, 2018. You need, I fear, to be a subscriber to read it in full. Professor Mullaney promises us a second volume, continuing the story into the world of computers. One can perhaps sense that the telegraphy trick might become significant here.

The website ozTypewriter gives an extensive well-illustrated account of some Chinese typewriters, including Dr Lin Yutang’s MingKwai machine.

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* Wikipedia tells us “Chinese characters represent words of the language using several strategies. A few characters, including some of the most commonly used, were originally pictograms, which depicted the objects denoted, or ideograms, in which meaning was expressed iconically. The vast majority were written using the rebus principle, in which a character for a similarly sounding word was either simply borrowed or (more commonly) extended with a disambiguating semantic marker to form a phono-semantic compound character.”