ATG Quirkies: Autocomplete, Predictive Text, No Keyboard? Welcome to the Chinese Typewriter

According to this article by Julie Makinen of the LA Times before the computer, there was something almost as complex: the Chinese typewriter.  A typewriter as complex as a computer??  Actually it’s not that hard to believe. “Because Chinese has no Chinese typewriter2alphabet and no alphabetical order, the operator must essentially memorize the location of each character — about 2,500 on a typical machine.”

And now, an associate professor at Stanford University is trying to foster a new appreciation for these “esoteric contraptions.” Prof. Tom Mullaney argues that a machines that resembles “a cross between a deli-meat slicer and a small printing press … actually pioneered familiar smartphone-era technologies, including predictive text and autocomplete. ” 

Of course, the article tells a fascinating story replete with photos and interesting asides and is well worth the read. But if you’re in the area and interested in checking out some of these unique machines in person, three Chinese typewriters from Prof. Mullaney’s collection are on display at Stanford’s East Asia Library until Sept. 10.

(Also checkout this website featuring Prof. Mullaney and his work.)

(Thanks to John Riley of Gabriel Books for providing ATG Quirkies)

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