Chinese Typewriting

Thomas S. Mullaney tells us the story of How Lois Lew mastered IBM’s 1940s Chinese typewriter (and of how he eventually met Lois Lew, to reveal the backstory of the woman who demonstrated the system as part of IBM’s attempt to market a Chinese-language typewriter in the late 1940s):

The IBM Chinese typewriter was a formidable machine—not something just anyone could handle with the aplomb of the young typist in the film. On the keyboard affixed to the hulking, gunmetal gray chassis, 36 keys were divided into four banks: 0 through 5; 0 through 9; 0 through 9; and 0 through 9. With just these 36 keys, the machine was capable of producing up to 5,400 Chinese characters in all, wielding a language that was infinitely more difficult to mechanize than English or other Western writing systems.

To type a Chinese character, one depressed a total of 4 keys—one from each bank—more or less simultaneously, compared by one observer to playing a chord on the piano. Just as the film explained, “if you want to type word number 4862 you would press 4-8-6-2 and the machine would type the right character.”

Interesting as the story of the young woman who featured in the demos of IBM’s Chinese Typewriter was, my first thought was that it was probably just as well that a combination of bad timing and geopolitics meant that the invention wasn’t a success.

Contemplate Mullaney’s summary of what Lois Lew had to do in those demo sessions…

In front of those 3,000 onlookers […] Lew was handed one newspaper article after the next, one letter after the next, which she then had to transcribe on the Chinese typewriter.

In other words, Lew had to:

  • Translate multiple passages, each containing hundreds of Chinese characters, into their corresponding four-digit codes;
  • Perform these translations entirely in her mind;
  • Input these codes into the machine (without delay or typo);
  • Maintain grace, composure, even a smile, the entire time.
    [Emphasis added. JR]

Lois Lew, by this account, did a remarkable job of translating the content into the right 4-character combos to get the IBM Chinese Typewriter to produce output (and maintaining an illusion that this was effortless, because obviously that part of the job was important too in a big, official demo.)1 She sounds like a remarkably capable person, but consider the effects if IBM had managed to get the Chinese market to adopt this system. A generation of young Chinese might have been mentally scarred for life by the scale of the task of being expected to memorise-and-regurgitate-on-demand thousands of 4-digit codes.

The incoming Chinese Communist government might well have regarded this attempt to shackle their workforce to such a horribly brittle, error-prone system of reproducing content as a CIA plot, a hostile act.

Looking on the bright side, perhaps the burden that the IBM Chinese Typewriter inflicted on users might have incentivised the Chinese to invent a really capable speech recognition system. Never mind the millions such a project might make: just consider the gratitude of a large portion of the nation’s workforce freed from memorising all those 4-digit codes.

[Via Memex 1.1]


  1. I can’t help but wonder whether the output of those demo sessions was all it was cracked up to be. Is the Chinese take on this that the Americans demonstrated a system that sort-of-worked but relied upon the typist being uncommonly good at converting Chinese writing to symbol numbers, I wonder? Were the system’s prospects killed by the chances of recruiting an army of typists who could work at Lois Lew’s standard? 
, 24 May 2021. Category: Uncategorized. Tagged: .