A Chinese typewriter is a typewriter that can type Chinese script. Early European typewriters began appearing in the early 19th century. However, as the Chinese languages use a common logographic writing system, fitting thousands of Chinese characters on the machine needed much more complex engineering than typewriters using a simple latin alphabet, or other non-logographic scripts. An ordinary Chinese printing office uses 6,000 Chinese characters. Chinese typewriters, and similar Japanese typewriters invented by Kyota Sugimoto, which use kanji adopted from the Chinese writing system, started to appear only in the early 20th century. There have been at least five dozen different versions of Chinese typewriters, ranging from sizable mechanical models to sophisticated electric word processors.
Hou-Kun Chow typewriter
Hou-Kun Chow (Chinese: 周厚坤), a mechanical engineer in Shanghai, is credited with inventing the first Chinese typewriter in 1916. His typewriter utilized 4,000 characters. He had studied in the United States like several other Chinese who also contributed to the development of Chinese typewriters. Hou-Kun first thought about the practicality of a Chinese typewriter in Boston, while he was inspecting American typewriters as a student of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His efforts were initially hindered by a lack of technical assistance in Shanghai.
Hou-Kun considered it impossible to build a Chinese typewriter with separate keys for each Chinese character. The solution was a mechanical typewriter used a revolving cylinder to fit Chinese characters on the machine. They were ordered by radicals and number of strokes on the cylinder, in a manner similar to Chinese dictionaries. This design however proved heavy, the machine initially weighing at 40 pounds (18 kg) and an improved version at about 30 pounds (14 kg).
Hou-Kun expected his typewriter to be used in Chinese offices where multiple copies of documents would be required to be made, and by Chinese living in foreign countries due to their lack of access to the services of skilled writers familiar with Chinese characters.
Ming Kwai typewriter
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The Ming Kwai typewriter is an electromechanical typewriter invented and patented by Dr. Lin Yutang. The patent, No. 2613795, was filed on April 17, 1946 by Lin, and was issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office on October 14, 1952. One of Lin's intentions was to help modernize China. Lin called his design the "Ming Kwai" typewriter and promoted it as "The Only Chinese Typewriter Designed for Everybody's Use". The two Chinese characters "Ming kwai" (Chinese: 明快; pinyin: míngkuài; Wade–Giles: ming-k'uai) means "clear" (as in understandable) and "quick".
Lin had a prototype machine custom built by the Carl E. Krum Company, a small engineering-design consulting firm with an office in New York City. That multilingual typewriter was the size of a conventional office typewriter of the 1940s. It measured 36 × 46 × 23 cm (14" x 18" x 9"). The typefaces fit on a drum. A "magic eye" was mounted in the center of the keyboard which magnifies and allows the typist to review a selected character. Characters are selected by first pressing two keys to choose a desired character which is arranged according to a system Lin devised for his dictionary of the Chinese language. The selected Chinese character appeared in the magic eye for preview, the typist then pressed a "master" key, similar to today's computer function key. The typewriter could create 90,000 distinct characters using either one or two of six character-containing rollers, which in combination has 7000 full characters and 1,400 character radicals or partial characters.
The inspired aspect of the typewriter was the system Lin devised for a Chinese script. It had thirty geometric shapes or strokes (somewhat analogous to the elements of a glyph). These became "letters" by which to alphabetize Chinese characters. He broke tradition with the long-standing system of radicals and stroke order writing and categorizing of Chinese characters, inventing a new way of seeing and categorizing.
The typewriter was not produced commercially. According to Lin's daughter, Lin Tai-Yi, the day she was to demonstrate the machine to executives of the Remington Typewriter Company, they could not make it work. Although they did get the machine fixed for a press conference the next day, it was to no avail. Lin found himself deeply in debt. In 1947, Lin paid income taxes owed to the Internal Revenue Service and went to work in Paris for UNESCO.
In the midst of the Chinese economic reforms of the 1980s, both the need and the opportunity to create a modern Chinese typewriter became apparent. Old and inefficient mechanical typewriters were still in use although China's industries were modernizing. In the mid-1980s, it became possible for the Chinese to establish small private businesses called Township and Village Enterprises. At the time, this business model was effectively the only way that a private domestic company could operate in China. Engineer and dissident Wan Runnan and his partners took advantage of the new legislation to form their IT company Stone Emerging Industries Company (Chinese: Sitong xinxing chanye gongsi) in 1984 in Zhongguancun, China's "Silicon Valley". Although described with various terms of "people-run enterprise" by officials, there was no legal category that would correspond to it. Wan and his partners had to operate the company as a "red hat capitalist" firm which was formally a collective enterprise but in reality pursued private profit and expansion into new markets.
The Stone company became interested in solving the problem of combining Chinese characters with modern electronic text input when Wang Jizhi, who had worked in the field for the government, joined the company. He met Japanese executives from Mitsui at a trade show for foreign electronics. Wang succeeded in securing a deal for developing a software to allow a Brother Industries dot matrix printer, distributed by Mitsui, to print Chinese characters. The success of their printer software lead Stone and Mitsui to cooperate again in 1985 to develop and market an electric typewriter or word processor: the MS-2400. The improved MS-2401 could type 200 characters per minute making it perform equally well as an IBM personal computer, a substantial improvement compared to just 20 on the old mechanical typewriters. The typewriters could print in both English and Chinese. Stone became one of the most successful IT companies in China and remained the dominant producer of Chinese word processors until the mid-1990s.
Cultural and technological impact
Between the 1930s and 1950s, Chinese typewriters had a political implication, as they were used in mass-production of leaflets and pamphlets. The typewriters also gained popular appeal and changed Chinese office work.
According to Thomas Mullaney it is possible, that development of modern Chinese typewriters in the 1960s and 1970s influenced the development of modern computers of word processors and even affected the development of computers. Chinese typewriter engineers were trying to make the most common characters to be accessible at the fastest speed possible by word prediction, a technique used today in Chinese input methods for computers, as well as in text messaging in many languages.
Chinese typewriter has become a metaphor for absurdity, complexity and backwardness in Western popular culture. One such example is MC Hammer's dance move named after the Chinese typewriter in the music video for "U Can't Touch This". The move with its fast paced and large gestures supposedly resembles a person working on a humongous and complex typewriter.
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