University Libraries open new Chinese typewriter exhibition

Chinese typewriter
A new exhibit on Chinese typewriters has opened at the East Asia Library.

Not all typewriters are created equal – especially when languages are not alphabetical. Imagine that.

Well, now you can learn about such typewriters firsthand, thanks to the University Libraries. In a new exhibition that opened Wednesday, The Chinese Typewriter: The Design and Science of East Asian Information Technology, the history of modern East Asian information technology is explored through artifacts drawn from the collections of historian THOMAS MULLANEY and the Stanford East Asia Library.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, technologies like the telegraph, the typewriter and the computer changed the way people communicated worldwide. But these technologies were created with an alphabet in mind. So, what about the non-alphabetic languages of East Asia? How did people there communicate by typewriter before the “Age of the Computer”?

To solve this, a Chinese typewriter can type Chinese script, which numbers in the several of thousands. Because the Chinese language uses a logographic writing system, fitting thousands of Chinese characters on the machine involves much more complex engineering than is necessary for Western typewriters. For example, an ordinary Chinese printing office uses 6,000 Chinese characters. At least five dozen different versions of Chinese typewriters exist.

Mullaney explains, “Unlike the history of the information age in the West, which enjoys extensive museum and archival collections, nothing comparable is available to the historian of the information age in East Asia.”

The exhibition will run through Aug. 22. The East Asia Library is located at 518 Memorial Way, in the Lathrop Library building, just east of the Oval.

The opening reception included lectures by Mullaney and JIDONG YANG, the head librarian for the Stanford East Asia Library.