How Lois Lew mastered IBM’s 1940s Chinese typewriter


By Thomas S. Mullaney lengthy Learn

I had seen this girl earlier than. Many instances now. I used to be sure of it. However who was she? In a movie from 1947, she’s working an electrical Chinese typewriter, the primary of its type, manufactured by IBM. Semi-circled by journalists, and a nervous-looking middle-aged Chinese man—Kao Chung-chin, the engineer who invented the machine—she radiates a smile as she pulls a sheet of paper from the gadget. Kao is biting his lip, his eyes darting forwards and backwards intently between the gang and the typist.

As quickly as I noticed that movie, I started to riffle by way of my recordsdata. I’m a professor of Chinese historical past at Stanford College, and I used to be years right into a book project on the historical past of recent Chinese data know-how—and the Chinese typewriter particularly. By that time, I had amassed a big and still-growing physique of supply supplies, together with archival paperwork, historic pictures, and even vintage machines. My workplace was changing into one thing of a personal museum.

As I believed, I’d encountered the typist beforehand in my analysis, in shiny IBM brochures and on the quilt of Chinese magazines. Who was she? Why did she seem so continuously, so prominently, within the historical past of IBM’s effort to affect the Chinese language?


The IBM Chinese typewriter was a formidable machine—not one thing simply anybody may deal with with the aplomb of the younger typist within the movie. On the keyboard affixed to the hulking, gunmetal grey chassis, 36 keys had been divided into 4 banks: 0 by way of 5; 0 by way of 9; 0 by way of 9; and 0 by way of 9. With simply these 36 keys, the machine was able to producing as much as 5,400 Chinese characters in all, wielding a language that was infinitely tougher to mechanize than English or different Western writing programs.

To sort a Chinese character, one depressed a complete of 4 keys—one from every financial institution—kind of concurrently, in contrast by one observer to enjoying a chord on the piano. Simply because the movie defined, “if you wish to sort phrase quantity 4862 you’d press 4-8-6-2 and the machine would sort the appropriate character.

Every four-digit code corresponded with a personality etched on a revolving drum contained in the typewriter. Spinning repeatedly at a velocity of 60 revolutions per minute, or as soon as per second, the drum measured 7 inches in diameter, and 11 inches in size. Its floor was etched with 5,400 Chinese characters, letters of the English alphabet, punctuation marks, numerals, and a handful of different symbols.

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A publicity photograph of Kao Chung-Chin’s invention. [Photo: courtesy of IBM and the Smithsonian]

How was the typist within the movie capable of pull off such a exceptional feat of reminiscence? Definitely, there are a number of execs who, in the middle of their day by day work, are capable of wield a powerful array of particular codes—telegraph operators, emergency responders, court docket stenographers, skilled musicians, cops, grocery retailer clerks. However none of them should memorize hundreds of ciphers or codes. This younger girl was a virtuoso.

Excited to share the movie with others, I posted a brief write-up about it on a weblog I used to run, and that was that. Someday, nevertheless, a remark appeared (a uncommon incidence). “Thank You for the recollections,” it learn. “I’m the girl demonstrating the Chinese typewriter within the latest restored film. In the event you’d like extra data please contact me.”

My coronary heart skipped a beat.


May this actually be her? Or was this some form of sensible rip-off concocted by a netizen with an excessive amount of time on their palms? I needed to reply, however I proceeded with warning:

Expensive Ms. Lew,

My title is Tom Mullaney, and I’m writing in response to your latest put up on my Chinese typewriter weblog. I used to be extraordinarily excited to obtain your notice, and simply wished to substantiate: you’re the one who labored with Kao Chung-Chin (Chung-chin Kao) to exhibit the IBM Chinese Typewriter?

Thanks very a lot for making contact, and I eagerly await your response,

Tom Mullaney

Within the postscript, I included a shibboleth of kinds: a query which, I knew from my analysis, may solely be answered by Ms. Lew herself, somebody who knew her personally, or somebody who, like me, had spent years in Chinese archives and uncommon e-book collections:

p.s. Could I ask what your Chinese title is, in Chinese characters?

She responded—precisely.

All of my doubt evaporated, changed with pleasure. I responded instantly, keen to rearrange a time to talk. I had so many questions. How did she change into concerned within the IBM challenge? What was her background? What was it like to make use of the machine? How did she handle to memorize all of these four-digit codes? I couldn’t look ahead to the second once I may communicate to her in particular person.

However my e mail to Lew went and not using a response, first for weeks, after which for months. I despatched a well mannered follow-up e mail. Silence once more. Lastly, the path went solely chilly. I by no means discovered why.

It could be one other eight years earlier than I reconnected with Lois Lew, this time due to a pal and former worker of hers. Like Lew, he noticed a weblog entry of mine and reached out. Maybe as a result of I used to be vouchsafed, due to my exchanges with Lew’s pal; this time the dialog befell. And it was effectively well worth the wait.

“You’ve been on the lookout for me for ten years,” she started, as quickly as she answered my name. I may nearly sense her smiling, sending my ideas again to the 1947 movie.

It was true—actually, it was an understatement. Once I first noticed Lois Lew, I used to be 29 years outdated. On the telephone together with her, I used to be 40.

She had traveled a far larger distance. Within the IBM promotional movie, she was a mere 22. On the telephone with me, she was 95.

I couldn’t consider I used to be lastly speaking to her.

Table of Contents


Lois Lew and the four-digit code

When the IBM Chinese typewriter was debuted to the world, Lois Lew was a employee in Division 76 of Plant 3 of the IBM workplace in Rochester, New York. Born Lois Eng on December 21, 1924, in Troy, New York, her youth was marked by battle, political turmoil, and close to fixed motion. Shortly after she was born, her household returned to China, within the years main as much as the outbreak of conflict with Japan in 1937. When conflict erupted, Lew’s household was pressured to flee south, largely on foot, on a dangerous trek from north China to Hong Kong. Alongside the best way, Lew recalled to me, there have been instances when she needed to carry a sibling on her again.

In Hong Kong, her mom took discover of a household within the neighborhood that struck her as financially secure. Partaking the assistance of a matchmaker, she inquired as as to if any of the sons within the household had been eligible bachelors. She supplied {a photograph} of Lois, and after a while obtained a solution within the affirmative.

Lois’s mom efficiently matched three of her daughters this fashion, one to a person in Chicago, a second to a person in San Francisco, and a 3rd—Lois—to a person in Rochester, New York. All of those males, her mom was assured, had been financially well-off and greater than able to supporting their brides-to-be.

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IBM’s promotional plan for the typewriter was essentially multilingual. [Photo: courtesy of IBM]

On the age of 16, Lew ventured upon a trans-Pacific voyage by herself, disembarking at San Francisco after which taking a prepare (once more by herself) to Chicago. Her soon-to-be brother-in-law greeted her there and accompanied her to Rochester. She may communicate and perceive barely a number of phrases of English.

Upon her arrival in Rochester, Lew discovered the reality about her new husband-to-be—a person named Yuen Lew—and his monetary state of affairs. Removed from dwelling a cushty life, Lew slept within the again room of his laundry store, alongside together with his sister Homosexual.

Being too younger to marry legally within the state of New York, the couple traveled to New Jersey to kind their union. Lois Eng turned Lois Lew. And whereas her new sister-in-law would go on to attend highschool, Lois was informed {that a} married girl like her didn’t try this form of factor.

Lois and Homosexual had been amongst solely a handful of Chinese ladies in Rochester on the time, a reality which—counterintuitively—might have contributed to their being employed by close by IBM. “In these days, you didn’t see many Chinese ladies,” Lew recounted to me in our dialog. “They’d simply use us for present: Chinese ladies utilizing an American typewriter.” Lew turned a succesful typist, as did Homosexual.

Then the IBM Chinese typewriter was unveiled to the world. Out of the blue, IBM—and, above all, the typewriter’s inventor, Kao Chung-Chin—wanted to seek out Chinese-speaking typists to assist exhibit the prototype each in america and in China. Lois and Homosexual had been summoned to New York to fulfill with Kao in particular person.

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Lois Lew on the typewriter within the late 1940s. [Photo: courtesy of IBM]

However then sickness struck. Homosexual contracted tuberculosis, and wanted to be hospitalized—and so Lew made this journey, as she had so many in her younger life, alone.

Renting a room at an area YWCA, Lew employed a taxi, and was shepherded to IBM’s world headquarters at 590 Madison Avenue. She stepped out of the cab, gazed upward on the 100,000-square foot, 20-story building, and entered the elevator to fulfill with Kao.

As Kao learn over Lew’s resume, which exhibited nothing like an academic background, he was visibly displeased. “Have you learnt the right way to spell the phrase ‘encyclopedia?’” he requested.

It was a peculiar and even insulting query—a form of aggressive non sequitur. Lew knew instantly what Kao was after: He was testing her, disillusioned in her lack of formal schooling. However she additionally knew that Kao’s suspicions had been appropriate: She didn’t know the right way to spell this phrase. Overcome and on the verge of tears, Lew wished to race again down the elevator, again to the Bronx, again to the YWCA the place she was renting a room, and maybe all the best way again to Rochester.

“Would you like me to go residence?” she requested.

Kao checked out her, after which appeared away. The room fell silent. His choice appeared to take a lifetime. Right here Lew was, an IBM plant employee with not even a highschool schooling, who had already failed a primary spelling take a look at within the opening moments of the interview. The query she requested lingered within the room: Would you like me to go residence?

What Lew couldn’t have recognized on the time, nevertheless, was that Kao wanted her excess of she wanted him. Earlier than Lew, there had been one other typist—one other younger girl named Grace Tong who Kao had employed to exhibit the machine to journalists and executives. Tong was every thing Kao had wished in an assistant. She boasted a university schooling. Her husband Yanghu Tong was a gifted engineer. What’s extra, she was the daughter-in-law of Hollington Tong, the revered Chinese diplomat and journalist.

However then Kao’s plans had been dealt a significant blow. For causes unexplained by the archival report, Tong gave up on the job. One risk holds that she might have fallen unwell, rendering her unable to proceed with Kao within the nationwide and worldwide tour of the machine. It is usually potential that Tong’s skilled life was being steadily consumed by familial expectations (she and her husband had been anticipating their second little one round this time). Regardless of the cause, the very fact remained: Kao was now in want of a substitute, ideally one with all the similar traits as Tong.

For Kao, Lew was removed from the best. Even nonetheless, she was Kao’s final greatest probability at successful over incredulous journalists and patrons as to the feasibility of his machine. If the world was to be satisfied that his system was tenable—particularly the coding system upon which it relied—it could be Lew’s job to persuade them.

If she landed the job, that’s.

“No,” Kao eventually replied, “There’s one thing else about you.” Kao paused after which sighed. “I’ve no alternative. I’ve to strive you.”

“Take this chart,” Kao instructed her. “Return to your lodge, and memorize the 4-digit codes for 100 characters.”

Over the following few days, Kao’s chart was Lew’s complete world. She was on probation, she knew, and every thing trusted her skill to memorize this starter set of codes.

The memorization recreation

After her first annoying encounter with Kao, Lois spent per week poring over his code e-book, vying to memorize the four-digit codes for the primary probationary set of 100 characters. She succeeded, and landed the job. And so started an unexpected journey, one that might take her throughout america and again throughout the Pacific.

The probationary interval gave approach to the true coaching routine. Within the span of three weeks, Lew would want to study by coronary heart—or, extra precisely, by physique—the four-digit codes for 1,000 of probably the most generally used Chinese characters. Every day, she made the lengthy commute from her furnished room within the Bronx to IBM’s places of work.

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A picture from Kao Chung-Chin’s typewriter patent.

All of this observe paid off. After finishing the coaching process, Lew turned Kao Chung-Chin’s fundamental demonstrator for the machine, in exhibits held throughout Boston, New York, and San Francisco. The placing younger Chinese ladies made an impression. “My fingernails had been purple,” she remembers. “I had nylon stockings. They’d by no means seen something like that.”

After which got here the voyage to China.

The final time Lew traveled by ship throughout the Pacific, she was a young person, all by herself, fleeing Hong Kong, and getting down to meet a husband-to-be who she had solely seen in pictures. This time, she was a grown girl, flanked by two IBM engineers, and a Chinese inventor. All of her meals had been paid for, as was a wholly new wardrobe. She was dwelling like a film star, as Lew described the expertise to me.

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Lois Lew and IBM’s typewriter had been cover-story materials for Chinese magazines.

To say that Kao Chung-Chin’s hopes had been excessive for the China journey can be an unlimited understatement. They had been stratospheric. As Kao’s son recounted to me, the inventor transformed an immense sum of cash into Chinese Yuan, the nation’s foreign money on the time—maybe as a lot as $250,000, though this determine could be exaggerated. The money crammed up a complete trunk, measuring some 4 ft extensive, 2 ft tall, and a pair of ft deep. It weighed 250 kilos.

With this immense conflict chest, Kao would attempt to safe contracts, set up manufacturing preparations, and maybe grease the skids a bit in a rustic that, as was well-known to many, was racked by systemic corruption and graft. Maybe this was final probability to translate these lengthy and grueling years into one thing that would make him as well-known—in China, not less than—as Ottmar Mergenthaler, Thomas Watson, or maybe even Johannes Gutenberg. His title, his popularity, and a small fortune, had been all driving on the journey—and on Lois Lew’s efficiency.

Even earlier than the crew’s arrival in China, the native media had been watching its American demonstrations from afar.

In China, the reception was thrilling. In Shanghai, the mayor of the town was ready for them on the docks, together with photographers. Lew and the crew had been handled to luxurious meals and stayed in one of many nicest accommodations within the metropolis. The primary of a collection of demonstrations befell at IBM China headquarters. The next day, on October 20, 1947, Kao and Lew demonstrated the machine on the Park Resort in Shanghai, the tallest constructing in all of Asia. In attendance had been scientists, native authorities officers, and newsmen.

In Nanjing, the reception was much more stirring. The crew was met by high-level authorities officers, and the go to was coated extensively within the Chinese press. Even earlier than the crew’s arrival in China, actually, the native media had been watching its American demonstrations from afar. For months, Chinese retailers had been circulating information of Kao’s demonstrations throughout the U.S., together with these in San Francisco, at Harvard College, and elsewhere.

In preparation for the demonstration in Nanjing, the town had organized an immense auditorium, and with good cause. An viewers of three,000 folks gathered to look at Kao Chung-Chin, the machine, and Lois Lew.

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Alongside together with her in-person demos, Lew appeared in supplies resembling IBM brochures. [Photo: courtesy of IBM]

Many would have been overwhelmed by the stress, however not Lew. She had grown accustomed to the highlight. New York, Boston, San Francisco, at IBM—all of those experiences had seasoned her, like a veteran Hollywood performer. In entrance of these 3,000 onlookers and one exquisitely nervous Kao Chung-Chin, Lew was handed one newspaper article after the following, one letter after the following, which she then needed to transcribe on the Chinese typewriter.

In different phrases, Lew needed to:

Kao and Lew had ready for this, nevertheless. Through the coaching routine, Lew was drilled on quite a lot of letters, in several, widespread kinds. She had memorized all of them.

Protection of Lew’s and Kao’s demonstrations in China had been in depth, and overwhelmingly optimistic. Tales appeared in Science, Indicators of the Instances, Municipal Affairs Weekly, Science Pictorial, Science Month-to-month, and plenty of different retailers. On high of this, publishers had been clearly enamored of Lew’s magnificence. Her face quickly appeared in Zhong-Mei Huabao, IBM promotional brochures, and the 1947 movie, amongst different venues. “I understand how to decorate,” Lew informed me on the telephone. “Very horny trying. I used to be lovely.”

The tip of the highway

For all the joy over Kao’s invention, because the 1940s drew to a detailed it turned more and more clear to him that his enterprise had failed. Regardless of the success of the Chinese tour, and the American tour earlier than it—and, above all, Lew’s stellar efficiency all through—Kao merely couldn’t persuade the broader world that his coding system was sensible.

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The typewriter’s outsized inside rotating drum made for a machine that was gargantuan in comparison with its western counterparts. [Photo: courtesy of IBM]

American media protection of Kao’s typewriter didn’t assist his trigger. In a July 15, 1946, article in Time journal, the opening mentioned all of it: “The Chinese have a sensible cause for believing that one image is price a thousand phrases: it takes so lengthy for them to jot down the phrases.”⁠ Reporting on Kao’s presentation of the IBM-sponsored machine in at an engineering conference in New York, the article continued:

The machine, which might give a U.S. stenographer the heebie jeebies, has 5,400 characters (probably the most generally used of the 80,000 within the Chinese language), mounted on a drum . . . It takes two months for an operator to study to jot down easy sentences, 4 months to realize the machine’s high velocity—45 phrases a minute (par for a quick typist in English: 120 phrases).

Ultimately, nevertheless, it was geopolitics that might kill Kao’s challenge. “The Communist takeover in China was effectively underway on the time,” a 1964 retrospective article defined, “and was accomplished earlier than the typewriter had an opportunity to realize vital gross sales in an understandably nervous Chinese market.” Not solely did Mao’s victory in mainland China push IBM’s anxieties to the breaking level, it additionally threw Kao’s nationwide identification into turmoil. He turned a person and not using a nation, being issued a particular Diplomatic “Pink” Visa by america. The IBM Chinese Typewriter by no means made it to market, leaving the problem of electrifying—and ultimately computerizing—the Chinese language to later inventors within the second half of the twentieth-century (a subject I’ve written about elsewhere, together with in a forthcoming e-book on MIT Press referred to as, unsurprisingly sufficient, The Chinese Laptop).

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Lew ultimately appeared in advertisements for Cathay Pagoda, the restaurant she ran together with her husband, resembling this 1976 instance.

For Lois Lew, life after IBM took her in a very completely different course. She and her husband began a laundromat of their very own, and reinvested their earnings, together with earnings from IBM, within the launch of Cathay Pagoda, a brand new Chinese restaurant in Rochester in 1968. Positioned only a two-minute stroll from the famed, 2,400-seat Eastman Theater, the restaurant attracted, not solely a gradual stream of scholars and younger folks, but in addition the occasional film star (Katharine Hepburn amongst them). The restaurant, which ran for many years, turned a mainstay of the town, earlier than its almost forty-year run got here to a detailed in 2007.

Now in her 90s, Lois Lew swims on the YMCA as soon as per week, three hours every time. She likes to eat, and she or he stays shut buddies with former staff from her restaurant. Trying again on her time at IBM, she informed me that she has however one remorse: “I may have purchased IBM inventory. As an alternative, I purchased conflict bonds. Silly!”

“I nonetheless bear in mind the numbers,” she added in passing, referring to the four-digit codes from the Chinese typewriter. She started to rattle them off to me on the phone. “‘You’, 0-2-7-5. ‘He’, 0-1-7-8. ‘Me’, “0-3-1-4.”

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Lois Lew Lois Lew poses with the 1947 movie that includes her typewriter
demo, as proven on the Museum of Chinese in America’s exhibit “Radical
Machines: Chinese In The Data Age” in 2019, curated by Tom Mullaney. [Photo: courtesy of Steve Dronzewski]

I couldn’t assist however smile. Her vivacity and vitality had been infectious. After virtually two hours of talking, the time had come to say our goodbyes. I expressed thanks, and we mentioned assembly in particular person in New York Metropolis, at a museum exhibit I curated on the historical past of Chinese data know-how—an exhibit through which the 1947 movie that includes Lois Lew was to be projected on the wall, bigger than life.

I hung up the telephone.

As I scrambled to seize in writing the numerous concepts coursing by way of my mind, my ideas turned again to the numbers she had recited to me. May this be true? Did she actually bear in mind the codes seven a long time later? Lew had spouted them so shortly in the course of the dialog, with none pause in any way, that I felt sure that she was talking extemporaneously. I dug again by way of my archival information to trace down Kao Chung-Chin’s unique record of 4-digit codes.

Trying up the three numbers she had recited, I may hardly consider my eyes.

0275: “You”

0178: “He”

0314: “Me.”

Tom Mullaney is Professor of Chinese Historical past of Stanford College, a Guggenheim fellow, and the Kluge Chair in Expertise and Society on the Library of Congress. He’s the writer or lead editor of six books, most not too long ago The Chinese Typewriter and Your Laptop is on Hearth (each with MIT Press). His subsequent e-book, The Chinese Laptop—the primary complete historical past of Chinese-language computing—is coming quickly.