Behold the 1940s Typewriter That Could Type in English, Chinese & Japanese: Watch More Than a Thousand Different Characters in Action

There was a time, not long after the wide­spread adop­tion of teleg­ra­phy in the 19th cen­tu­ry, when the writ­ten Chi­nese lan­guage looked doomed. Or at least it did to cer­tain thinkers con­sid­er­ing the impli­ca­tions of that instant glob­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion-enabling tech­nol­o­gy hav­ing been devel­oped for the rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple Latin alpha­bet. And as unsuit­ed as the Chi­nese writ­ing sys­tem must have seemed to the world of the tele­graph, it would have pre­sent­ed a seem­ing­ly even heav­ier bur­den in the world of the type­writer.

Only in 1916, thanks to the efforts of a U.S.-educated Shang­hai engi­neer named Hou-Kun Chow, did the Chi­nese type­writer debut, built around a large, revolv­ing cylin­der that could print 4,000 ideo­graph­ic (that is to say, each one rep­re­sent­ing a dif­fer­ent word or sound) char­ac­ters. From that point the evo­lu­tion of the Chi­nese type­writer was rather quick, by the stan­dards of the day. And it did­n’t only hap­pen in Chi­na: Japan, whose own writ­ten lan­guage incor­po­rates many ideo­graph­ic Chi­nese char­ac­ters, had been sub­ject to more intense tech­no­log­i­cal influ­ence from the West since open­ing to for­eign trade in the 1860s.

The very year after its found­ing in 1939, elec­tron­ics-giant-to-be Toshi­ba (the prod­uct of a merg­er involv­ing Japan’s first mak­er of tele­graph equip­ment) pro­duced the first Japan­ese cylin­dri­cal type­writer. “Most­ly used by the Japan­ese mil­i­tary dur­ing World War II,” says the Vin­tage Type­writer Muse­um, it incor­po­rat­ed 630 char­ac­ters. After the war “Toshi­ba intro­duced a new mod­el, the 1200 A, fea­tur­ing 1172 Japan­ese and Chi­nese char­ac­ters.” In the video above, from Youtu­ber by the name of Type­writer Col­lec­tor, you can see a slight­ly lat­er mod­el in action.

Pro­duced before the intro­duc­tion of “West­ern-style” key­boards, the Toshi­ba BW-2112 has the same inter­face as its pre­de­ces­sors: “The char­ac­ter is select­ed by rotat­ing the cylin­der and shift­ing it hor­i­zon­tal­ly, so that the nec­es­sary char­ac­ter is select­ed with the index point­er,” accord­ing to the Vin­tage Type­writer Muse­um. “When the print key is depressed, the type strip is pushed upwards from the cylin­der, and the type ham­mer swings to the cen­ter to print the char­ac­ter onto the paper.”

These vin­tage Japan­ese type­writ­ers still today strike their view­ers as mar­vels of engi­neer­ing, though their then-vast store of char­ac­ters (which includ­ed not just Chi­nese-derived kan­ji but pho­net­ic kana and even the Latin alpha­bet) have long since been sur­passed by dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy. Now that every stu­den­t’s smart­phone puts all 50,000 or extant Chi­nese char­ac­ters in their com­mand — to say noth­ing of the world’s oth­er writ­ten lan­guages — it’s safe to say they’re not about to fall into dis­use any time soon.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Endur­ing Ana­log Under­world of Gramer­cy Type­writer

Dis­cov­er Friedrich Nietzsche’s Curi­ous Type­writer, the “Malling-Hansen Writ­ing Ball” (Cir­ca 1881)

When IBM Cre­at­ed a Type­writer to Record Dance Move­ments (1973)

Dis­cov­er the Inge­nious Type­writer That Prints Musi­cal Nota­tion: The Keaton Music Type­writer Patent­ed in 1936

Free Chi­nese Lessons

Learn Japan­ese Free

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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