Sunday, January 18, 2009

Lin Yu-tang and his Chinese Typewriter

I am editing a manuscript from 1939 at the moment that will hopefully be published later this year – it is the diary of someone that spent most of 1939 in Chongqing, then China’s wartime capital and the most heavily bombed city on earth courtesy of the Japanese. One section recalls a dinner party where Lin Yu-tang was discussed. Lin was an interesting character that not much liked by many in Chongqing for his writings from American on China. They thought him wrong; others thought them jealous of his success as a bestseller. But that’s another argument.

What I had forgotten till I transcribed this passage was that Lin was also an inventor who designed a Chinese typewriter – something I’ve always wanted to find in a flea market but never have…so far (Japanese ones pop up every now and again but rarely Chinese).

Lin worked hard on Gwoyeu Romatzyh, a new method of romanizing the Chinese language, and he created an indexing system for Chinese characters. Since obviously Chinese is a character-based rather than an alphabet-based language it had always been difficult to employ modern printing technologies. For many years it was doubted that a Chinese typewriter could be invented. Lin, however, eventually came up with a workable typewriter which he launched in the middle of the war with Japan. He even trademarked it - Patent No. 2613795 in the USA.

As the picture shows the typewriter was the size of a normal one but the typefaces fit on a drum. A so-called “magic eye” was mounted in the centre of the keyboard and when the user pressed several keys, according to a system Lin devised for his dictionary of the Chinese language, a Chinese character appeared. To select a particular character, the typist then pressed a "master" key, similar to today's computer function key –if you use pinyin software on a computer you’ll recognise the basic process.

Sadly the typewriter was never produced commercially. According Lin's daughter, Lin Tai-Yi, the day Lin was to demonstrate the machine to executives of the Remington Typewriter Company, he couldn’t make it work. Lin ended up deeply in debt.

Others did make it into production - the first typewriter with Chinese characters was produced about 1911-14. The Japanese Nippon Typewriter Co. began producing typewriters with Chinese and Japanese characters in 1917 with a flat bed of 3,000 Japanese characters (which would effectively mean typing only shorthand).The picture left is a Japanese typewriter.


CW Hayford said...

Good to see that Lin Yutang is getting more recognition.

Ironically (if that's the right word), Mark Twain lost his shirt on a typewriter company in which he put all his money.

So history does indeed rhyme!

Roslyn Joy Ricci said...

Lin Yutang's Minghwai typewriter and associated typing systems were used by the U.S. Airforce. It cost Lin US$120,000 to develop and sent him broke. Fortunately, he was an extraordinary writer and so was able to recoup his finances using this skill.

Lin sold the patent to Mergenthaler Linotype Company but IBM eventually bought it as the basis for their program for Chinese character writing.

Lin also invented a toothbrush that dispensed paste as one brushed one's teeth and a poker-playing machine.

Roslyn Joy Ricci
PhD Candidate
Thesis title: A Psychobiography of Lin Yutang

Paul French said...

Thanks - fascinating - an excellent Phd titleeven if I'm a bit unsure what psychobiography is?

you don't have a photo of the poker playing machine by any chance do you. I wrote a bio of Carl Crow, the man who claimed to have first introduced Texas rules poker to China (among other slightly more worthy things too I hasten to add)?

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