Creating the Chinese Computer

By CHM Editorial | June 26, 2024

How can Chinese—a language with tens of thousands of characters and no alphabet—be input on a QWERTY keyboard with only a few dozen keys designed for English? That was a compelling challenge that attracted engineers from all over the world in the second half of the 20th century.

Thomas Mullaney, professor of Chinese history at Stanford University, shared insights about this challenge from his new book, The Chinese Computer: a Global History of the Information Age. He was on stage at CHM Live with Yangyang Chen, a research scholar and fellow at the Yale Law School.

Ancient Script, Modern Times

The Chinese language became “a problem,” Mullaney said, only when new technologies like the telegraph and typewriter were invented in the early 19th century. They were built with the English language in mind and could be made to function well enough for languages like French and Italian. But other languages—like Chinese—were blamed for their incompatibility with the machines. Some reformers even suggested that to keep pace with the industrial age, the Chinese language had to go.

Others, however, tried to imagine a world in which heritage could come forward into the modern world. It involved an entirely different way of thinking about inputting to a keyboard.

Thomas Mullaney explains what happens when you type on a Chinese keyboard.

Essentially, typing on a Chinese keyboard provides criteria to instruct a program to find a particular character from memory. So, how did this method come about?

Representing Chinese

In the 1950s, MIT professor Samuel Caldwell learned from his Chinese students that there is a particular stroke order to create Chinese characters. He realized that he could build a logical circuit, not to create characters stroke by stroke, but as a search algorithm. He and his team developed the first Chinese computer, the Sinotype. With a Cold War government hoping the machine could be used to create Chinese propaganda, he received funding for the project.

On the other side of the world, in a Chinese prison cell in the 1960s, another engineer came up with a different solution.

Thomas Mullaney describes a breakthrough concept for input.

These script-based methods of input gave way in the late 1980s and early ‘90s to mapping Chinese onto a keyboard using Latin letters to spell the sounds of Chinese—phonetics. Written Chinese characters can accommodate different pronunciation, syntax, and word usage, which was why a phonetic method for input was dismissed for decades. Single phonemes in Chinese can correspond to dozens of different characters, and the computer then has to consider many different possibilities that requires significant computational power.

But in the 1970s and ‘80s, a subset of engineers focused not on inputting one character at a time—which leads to so much ambiguity—but instead on inputting the compound characters that make up most Chinese words. Two- and even four-character sequences significantly cut down on the ambiguity. With a phonetic input system, users must train themselves in standard Chinese, even if that is not their primarily language. In that way, it serves as a tool of nation formation for the People's Republic of China, especially since it is now taught to preschoolers.

A Bigger History

Chen prompted Mullaney to tell the story of Lois Liu, the woman who appears on his book cover. Liu moved to Rochester, New York, after World War II for an arranged marriage and began working at an IBM factory. In the late 1940s, she became a demonstrator of the new IBM electronic Chinese typewriter. It required her to memorize unique four-digit numbers to input different Chinese characters. She essentially held the algorithm in her head.

Liu represents the European image of feminized labor at this time, but Mullaney noted that this dominant historical narrative needs further exploration and expansion. We know very little about the global history of computing. For instance, early personal computers in the 1980s were exported to China, but none of them worked out of the box with Chinese. They had to first be modified. Even a dot matrix printer had to be hacked.

Thomas Mullaney explains how a dot matrix printer had to be hacked to display Chinese properly.

There are many, many stories about having to make these kinds of modifications. Companies like Apple and Microsoft would then incorporate the changes into the software so it became part of the standard OS. But these changes came from the fringes of global technology, not from the major tech companies themselves.

By the 1990s and 2000s, someone using a computer in China looked just like their counterpart in the US. But, says Mullaney, if you looked over their shoulder, you would find that they were using the QWERTY keyboard in ways it was never designed to be used. In fact, today, 51% of the global population uses computers in a way that the computers were never meant to be used.

To explain the origins of today’s digital realities, we need to understand a truly global history of computing.

Watch the Full Conversation

The Chinese Computer | CHM Live, June 18, 2024

A special thank you to the Bin Lin and Daisy Liu Family Foundation for their generous support of this program.

About The Author

CHM Editorial consists of editors, curators, writers, educators, archivists, media producers, researchers, and web designers, looking to bring CHM audiences the best in technology and Museum news.

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