The Chinese Typewriter: A History

Jamie Fisher in the London Review of Books:

Fish04_4005_01Nominally a book that covers the rough century between the invention of the telegraph in the 1840s and that of computing in the 1950s, The Chinese Typewriter is secretly a history of translation and empire, written language and modernity, misguided struggle and brutal intellectual defeat. The Chinese typewriter is ‘one of the most important and illustrative domains of Chinese techno-linguistic innovation in the 19th and 20th centuries … one of the most significant and misunderstood inventions in the history of modern information technology’, and ‘a historical lens of remarkable clarity through which to examine the social construction of technology, the technological construction of the social, and the fraught relationship between Chinese writing and global modernity’. It was where empires met.

Long before it could be a technological reality, the Chinese typewriter was a famous non-object. In 1900, the San Francisco Examiner described a mythical Chinatown typewriter with a 12-foot keyboard and 5000 keys. The joke caught on, playing to Western conceptions of the Chinese language as incomprehensible, impractical and above all baroque: cartoons showed mandarins in flowing robes, clambering up and down staircases of keys or key-thumping in caverns. ‘After all,’ Thomas Mullaney writes, ‘if a Chinese typewriter is really the size of two ping-pong tables put together, need anything more be said about the deficiencies of the Chinese language?’ To many Western eyes, the characters were so exotic that they seemed to raise philosophical, rather than mechanical, questions. Technical concerns masqueraded as ‘irresolvable Zen kōans’: ‘What is Morse code without letters? What is a typewriter without keys?’ A Chinese typewriter was an oxymoron.

More here. [Thanks to Ali Minai.]