Tuesday, July 19, 2005

A Chinese Typewriter

I have been thinking about how we might one day live in a post QWERTY world. However. I love going back into the past and finding out how some of the same problems were approached, and sometimes solved, in a different technological era.

This morning (well, about noon where I am) Jimmy Ho sent me this image of a Chinese typewriter. I wasn't exactly sure of how to describe it but I have found this 1980 patent for a similar Chinese typewriter.

"A Chinese typewriter comprising a keyboard for the input of numerical and command signals, a control circuit for control of the system, a rotating drum carrying a film strip on which are optically stored a plurality of Chinese characters, a CRT display for verifying the desired character, and a printer."

While I am not sure if this is identical , the patent description, quite long, does make for a fascinating read. There are many social and theoretical asides in the description that give interesting insights into the interaction of the Chinese writing system and technology.

"It is therefore an object of the present invention to provide a typewriter for Chinese characters (or other ideographic characters) that is mechanically simple, that can be made relatively inexpensively, and that is relatively small, compact and light weight. It is a further object of the invention to provide such a typewriter that can be operated after a relatively short training period, and without knowledge of the Chinese language or of the origin and meaning of the ideographs. It is also an object to provide a Chinese typewriter that can be operated at speeds comparable to those at which alphabetic typewriters are operated."

I also found this site about a visit to the Harbin Welding Institute and more from the Science and Society Picture Library.

This kind of then and now comparison is getting to be quite addictive. Thanks, Jimmy!

Addendum:

Jimmy added this comment. I think I was so excited to get a photo from far away and post it all in a matter of minutes that I didn't realize I should wait for Jimmy's commentary to go with it. Live and learn.

"I took that picture around 1990 in a small printing workshop in Beijing. What strikes me about the machine is that it looks like a hybrid of a regular alphabetic typewriter and those letter cases (sorry, I lack the appropriate terminology) used by the typographers. To put it shortly, while there is the paper cylinder (or "drum"?) and a familiar general shape, the absence of a keyboard is was makes it so unique, definitely not a common "daziji" (that reminds me of my amusement when I remarked the old cyrillic typewriters that are still in place in some Chinese administrations).

At the time, I was told how many movable characters there are, but I didn’t write it down; an estimation based on a close-up of the "case" should be possible, though. Another thing I should have asked is the system commanding the characters arrangement (obviously, I was still a beginner in Chinese).

Once you know on which principles that guide the disposition of the characters (frequency order is only one out of many possibilities), you only have to get used to the manipulation of the articulated arm that "takes" the character and types it on the paper (you can see on the picture that a character is already out of the case, ready to be projected on the drum), and you can then compose a page in a reasonable time.

This is how it was described to me, but, unfortunately, I haven’t seen it work, because I happened to visit the room off schedule.

I am intrigued by the patent you link to, and I am not sure if I understood it correctly, but it surely doesn’t match the machine in the picture. With its 'rotating optical storage device [that] has stored visual representations of characters" and "keyboard providing keys for generating numerical signals representative of numerical values corresponding to an ideographic character,' it describes instead a much more sophisticated kind of typewriter."

3 Comments:

Blogger Jimmy Ho said...

You are welcome, Suzanne!

I took that picture around 1990 in a small printing workshop in Beijing. What strikes me about the machine is that it looks like a hybrid of a regular alphabetic typewriter and those letter cases (sorry, I lack the appropriate terminology) used by the typographers. To put it shortly, while there is the paper cylinder (or "drum"?) and a familiar general shape, the absence of a keyboard is was makes it so unique, definitely not a common "daziji" (that reminds me of my amusement when I remarked the old cyrillic typewriters that are still in place in some Chinese administrations).
At the time, I was told how many movable characters there are, but I didn’t write it down; an estimation based on a close-up of the "case" should be possible, though. Another thing I should have asked is the system commanding the characters arrangement (obviously, I was still a beginner in Chinese). Once you know on which principles that guide the disposition of the characters (frequency order is only one out of many possibilities), you only have to get used to the manipulation of the articulated arm that "takes" the character and types it on the paper (you can see on the picture that a character is already out of the case, ready to be projected on the drum), and you can then compose a page in a reasonable time. This is how it was described to me, but, unfortunately, I haven’t seen it work, because I happened to visit the room off schedule.

I am intrigued by the patent you link to, and I am not sure if I understood it correctly, but it surely doesn’t match the machine in the picture. With its "rotating optical storage device [that] has stored visual representations of characters" and "keyboard providing keys for generating numerical signals representative of numerical values corresponding to an ideographic character", it describes instead a much more sophisticated kind of typewriter.

12:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please see http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/texts/chinlng2.html

It appears your picture shows the machine missing its inked ribbon which transfers the character to the paper.

10:31 AM  
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9:09 PM  

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