View largeDownload slide Cartoon in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat (1901), from The Chinese Typewriter, p. 37. View largeDownload slide Cartoon in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat (1901), from The Chinese Typewriter, p. 37. The Chinese Typewriter is the first of Thomas Mullaney’s planned two-volume study of modern Chinese information technology. This reviewer cannot wait for the second. It is a deeply researched and expertly crafted work of historical scholarship that should capture the imaginations of design researchers who wish to preserve the centrality of the artefact in their studies while reaching beyond it. Although the topic addressed by the author is unfathomably complex, it can be stated with relative ease: the Western typewriter, introduced to the world by the likes of Remington, Underwood and Olivetti, features a keyboard in which there is a one-to-one correspondence between a particular key and the letterform that appears on the page when struck; I am performing a highly mediated version of this operation on my MacBook at this very moment. The radical simplicity of the phonetic vocabulary transmitted to us by our Phoenician, Greek and Latin ancestors lends itself naturally to this system. Moreover, with the permutations and combinations enabled by a paltry forty-seven keys and a shift bar, I can compose a sonnet, an irate letter to the editor or a book review for a learned journal. Not so with Chinese. The written Chinese language, as everyone knows, is character based, and there are tens of thousands of them. The ‘ni hao’ (你好), which is about as far as most Westerners will ever get, is composed of the characters meaning ‘you’ and ‘good’. They are not phonetic, and there is no character equivalent to the sound of an ‘N’ or an ‘H’. How, then, could Chinese literacy enter the information-rich world of mechanical mass production? How could a machine be conceived, designed and built that would reconcile the character-based Chinese script with the alphabetic dominance of what Mullaney calls ‘technolinguistic’ modernity? (p. 17 ff.) In a remarkably engaging reconstruction, Mullaney escorts us through two centuries of experiments in which American, European and Chinese innovators—inventors, philologists, diplomats, missionaries, engineers, entrepreneurs and language reformers to the left and right of the political spectrum—attempted to cope with the seemingly irreconcilable ontologies of alphabetic and character-based script. Over the course of the nineteenth century, three strategies competed for acceptance. The first of these was based on the principle of ‘common usage’: although the number of characters in the Chinese lexicon runs into the thousands, it was deemed possible to reduce this to a much smaller number of the most frequently used (the Oxford English Dictionary contains 117,476 words in current use, but the average adult American typically learns only 20,000–35,000 of them and fewer than 3,000 of them are required to read a newspaper or engage in daily conversation). A second approach is referred to as ‘combinatorialism’: the concept here, championed by a generation of French Orientalists, is that the typical Chinese character can be resolved into a structure of ‘radicals’ or ‘strokes’ that could be isolated and reassembled through some manner of technological artifice. The third approach—Mullaney calls it ‘surrogacy’—was to encrypt the language in a form of code, along the lines of the telegraph operator’s sourcebook that would be consulted in decoding a transmission. In each case, an apparatus was envisioned, designed and occasionally built that would embody one or another of these solutions to ‘the “puzzle” of Chinese writing’ (p. 76). View largeDownload slide Cartoon in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat (1901), from The Chinese Typewriter, p. 37. View largeDownload slide Cartoon in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat (1901), from The Chinese Typewriter, p. 37. The early twentieth century, however, buffeted by war, electrification, global commerce and the competing demands of Imperial, Republican and Communist regimes, gradually overwhelmed these systems and rendered them more-or-less obsolete. Mullaney handles the political context deftly and in a manner that turns the Chinese typewriter into a lens through which to view modern Chinese history, and vice versa. For instance, the unwieldly nineteenth-century systems—common usage, combinatorialism and surrogacy—had been absorbed by the 1920s and 1930s into a machine consisting of a flat tray bed containing a huge assortment metal characters that could be selected according to one or another principle by a skilled cadre of typists trained in a growing institutional infrastructure of specialized schools. Although Chairman Mao Zedong had at one point called for the abolition of the Chinese script altogether, the political dynamics of the early communist period actually helped to resolve the overwhelming challenge of how to organize these individual type pieces so they could be located and selected efficiently. On the one hand, the Maoist exhortation to the wisdom of the masses had the effect of ‘democratizing’ the selection criteria in a manner that eschewed a single protocol and encouraged thousands of individual typists to develop arrangements that best suited their tasks—a form of crowdsourcing, avant la lettre. At the same time, the communist propaganda apparatus that—in a manner not unlike formulaic Homeric epithets (‘rosy-fingered dawn’; ‘heroic long-suffering Odysseus…’)—favoured routinized, numbingly predictable phrases suggested that type pieces might conveniently be clustered in such a way as to ‘surround’ a character with the eight complements most likely to be partnered with it—a pre-digital form of ‘predictive analytics’. The ingenious heat maps developed by Mullaney are among the several visual devices he deploys throughout the book to illustrate such complex processes. By the 1990s, the advent of desktop computing abruptly rendered contraptions such as the popular Double Pigeon typewriter obsolete.1 Although our laptops sport the familiar QWERTY keyboard (and a pixelated screen that references a sheet of 8½″ × 11″ paper), depressing the Q or the W obviously does not translate mechanically into a physical impression. What appears to us as a direct correspondence—‘What You Type Is What You Get’—is actually an invisible process concocted by legions of software engineers at Microsoft and Apple. As it has in every other sphere of life, ‘the age of input’ transformed the underlying logic of the Chinese typewriter and pointed the way to a resolution of ‘China’s early twentieth century information crisis’ (p. 247). But this is a story that the author has reserved for the sequel, which promises to carry the history of the Chinese information technology into the era of programming, machine translation, the feminization of Chinese intellectual labour and the growth of personal computing. The Chinese Typewriter, as I have tried to suggest, is a richly textured, multi-tiered study not just of an artefact but also of an entire conceptual universe. This is perhaps its greatest value to readers for whom the machinations of rival inventors or the distinction between plerimic and cenemic writing systems may not be a central concern. Thomas Mullaney demands that we free ourselves from received notions of what an artefact is (in this case, an object with keys, each of which corresponds to one letter in the alphabet) and reconfigure our thinking at the scale of an entire technolinguistic imaginary. The implications of this approach for the history of design would seem to be profound. Notes 1 Western readers struggling to visualize the modus operandus of the modern Chinese typewriter might appreciate a video in which Mullaney literally unpacks, assembles and demonstrates the Double Pigeon machine: https://vimeo.com/204102277. © The Author(s) . Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Design History Society. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of Design History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 21, 2018
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