Imagine yourself at the dawn of telegraphy in the 1840s, trying to invent Morse Code for Chinese–or in the 1890s trying to invent a Chinese typewriter. How would you fit thousands of characters onto a machine with fewer than 50 keys? Or perhaps you are in the 1950s, trying to invent the first Chinese computer. How would you fit Chinese onto a QWERTY keyboard? Throughout the age of modern information technology (I.T.), the Chinese language has presented fascinating and irresistible puzzles for engineers, linguists, and entrepreneurs across the globe.
It may seem impossible, and yet it happened. With help from the global community, China solved these puzzles and went from being the “dark horse” of the I.T. world, to a global I.T. powerhouse. How it achieved this feat has long been a mystery to historians and technologists alike.
In this exhibit, we explore the design, technology, and art of Chinese characters in the information age. Through a collection of rare typewriters and computers — and a diverse array of historic photographs, telegraph code books, typing manuals, ephemera, propaganda posters, and more — we gain unprecedented insight into the still-transforming history of the world’s oldest living language.
Thomas S. Mullaney is a historian of East Asia, global history, science, and technology at Stanford University.
His writings have appeared in Aeon, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the Journal of Asian Studies, and Technology & Culture. His work has been featured in the LA Times, The Atlantic, the BBC, and in invited lectures at Google, IBM Almaden, Microsoft, Adobe, and more.
He holds a PhD from Columbia University, and was recently awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.
His most recent book is The Chinese Typewriter: A History (MIT Press, 2017).
Drawing upon over 70 archives across Asia, Europe, and the United States, as well as extensive oral histories and the examination of material artifacts, The Chinese Typewriter is the first work to examine China’s development of a modern, nonalphabetic information infrastructure in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.