Exhibition: ‘The Chinese Typewriter’ at Stanford University

Time to feed my love of typewriters, harking back to my father’s 1966 Adler (shown below), which I hold precious alongside a few more vintage machines that are hidden under the stairs…and to the photographic series of typewriters I took in 2005. I must find those images…

‘Untitled (1966)’ (2005) by Rachel Marsden. Image copyright Rachel Marsden.

In 2012, I wrote a blog post about ‘A Chinese Typewriter…’ where I spoke of the work of Professor Thomas S. Mullaney from Stanford University and his website of Chinese typewriter information resources. I also cited the 2011 ‘Google Tech Talk’ on ‘How Chinese Typists Invented ‘Predictive Text’ during the Height of Maoism’ and the largest typewriter museum (of over 300 typewriters) in China – Shanghai Typewriter Museum – created by Suzhou-born Lu Habin, who now lives in Czech Republic.

Six years on, Professor Mullaney has curated ‘The Chinese Typewriter’, an exhibition exploring the history of modern East Asian information technology through artefacts drawn from his collection and the East Asia Library.

The Chinese Typewriter - Photography by Zhijian Qiao 55
‘The Chinese Typewriter’ exhibition – Photography by Zhijian Qiao http://www.qiaoimage.com

‘During the 19th and 20th centuries, technologies like the telegraph, the typewriter and the computer changed the way people communicated worldwide. But these technologies were created with an alphabet in mind.

“What about the non-alphabetic languages of East Asia? How did people there communicate by typewriter before the “Age of the Computer”?”

A Chinese typewriter can type Chinese script, which numbers in the several of thousands. Because the Chinese language uses a logographic writing system, fitting thousands of Chinese characters on the machine involves much more complex engineering than is necessary for Western typewriters. For example, an ordinary Chinese printing office uses 6,000 Chinese characters. At least five dozen different versions of Chinese typewriters exist.’ [Text courtesy of Professor Mullaney]

I would love to use one of the original machines. To work out it’s sequencing, it’s order, placement and design, to hear the noise as each key presses into ink and makes its mark on the page. There is something so distinct and intimate when using a typewriter – no room for errors with it’s own percussion soundtrack accompaniment.  I’m trying to imagine typing up my PhD on one! In Chinese too…

Not all typewriters are created equal – especially when languages are not alphabetical. Imagine that. Unlike the history of the information age in the West, which enjoys extensive museum and archival collections, nothing comparable is available to the historian of the information age in East Asia.” – Professor Mullaney

Funnily enough, I applied to Stanford for postgraduate studies back in 2006 (ending up completing an MA in the UK due to USA’s crazy tuition fees) and, more  recently, for jobs as it’s Chinese and Asian art research facilities and art centres are like no other. One day? Well, let’s get to post-PhD land later this year first…

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