Reflecting on the Chinese Typewriter

Authors@MIT: Reflecting on “The Chinese Typewriter”

Recently Tom Mullaney, author of The Chinese Typewriter, gave a talk at the MIT Press Bookstore. This is one staff member’s takeaway from the talk.

For months I’ve seen the beautifully designed jacket of The Chinese Typewriter being worked on; I work in Production so I’ve seen proofs, I’ve seen printed samples, I’ve seen jacketed copies of the book in multiple locations throughout our office. However, it was not until I attended author Tom Mullaney’s enthusiastic, informative, beautifully narrative yet complex talk at the MIT Press bookstore on 10/4 that I realized that the typewriter on the front of the jacket doesn’t look like our standard typewriter. The editing of my mind’s eye wasn’t the thesis of Professor Mullaney’s talk, but I think it was kind of the point.

He opened by asking the audience to recognize the ways in which technology has built in a dominant (Western, often white) culture and perspective. He showed memes (like the HP Computers are Racist Youtube video and “Did someone blink”image) to demonstrate this argument. Unlike these examples, the keyboard has been part of technological history for so long that the modern Western user likely forgets the political and cultural message it sends.

It begins with Morse code in the early 1800s. Morse code was based on a series of dots and dashes standing in for one letter or number; so one dot = E and so forth. That didn’t work for Chinese which is character-, not letter-, based, and has more than 70,000 distinct traditional characters. The solution was to use the 10,000 most commonly used characters and assign each one a unique four-digit number from 0001 to 9999, meaning Chinese telegraphs required a double translation (Chinese into numbers, and numbers into Morse.)  Also E = 1 dot, but all the numbers have 5 dots/dashes per number, so a four-digit number (aka one character) would add up to 20 dots/dashes. I didn’t realize that the cost to send telegraphs was based on the number of dots and dashes used. In this system sending a telegraph in Chinese was at a double disadvantage because it took longer and cost more.

Not long after, post-Civil War, arms manufacturers began shifting their design prowess to the making of non-war-time machines, such as sewing machines and typewriters!  Typewriters didn’t start out in the way we nostalgically think of them today; there were many different shapes, technologies, and models. One model, for example, had a double keyboard – one for capital letters and one for lowercase letters. This model was perfect for Siamese, which is an alphabetic language, just with a lot more letters than Latin-based languages. Eventually Remington and its shift-model keyboard that we most commonly associate with mass-manufactured typewriters won out. The Western world fell in love with the machine and heralded it the “universal” model. But “universal” excluded Chinese, since in this shift-model the Chinese character system became a seemingly impossible “problem” to be solved.

At a crossroads, the Chinese modernized and adapted one of the earlier typewriter models to meet the needs of the language. In the Chinese typewriter model the characters are laid into a bed (they can be customized, for example, for a lawyer, a clerk, or to meet the needs of Mao’s propaganda) and selected using a moving stylus. The beautiful cover image on The Chinese Typewriter is (obviously) a Chinese typewriter, and still my white Western eyes painted over the image to fit my narrow view of what a typewriter is. Professor Mullaney’s book is an expert telling of the history of the Chinese typewriter, but just as importantly it’s part of the conversation about white Western privilege.