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In today’s globalized, always-connected society, another innovation we take for granted is the universality of computers despite language differences. And some of us in English-speaking countries will even go a step further and assume computers all over the world have QWERTY keyboards—an assumption one could characterize as an act of privilege. For that reason, we should know the story of these two pioneers in tech, Chung-chin Kao and Lois Lew, the Chinese Americans who brought the IBM typewriter to China.

Chinese is the most common native language in the world, and it’s actually a group of languages, sometimes called dialects, that share a common character set. But while the English language includes 26 letters and 14 punctuation marks, the Chinese character set features more than 70,000. That makes creating a usable keyboard a challenge—one that engineer Kao took on. Kao (whose name is sometimes listed as Kao Chung-chin, C.C. Kao or Gao Zhongqin) was working in New York City for the Chinese government when he began working on a Chinese keyboard, with the idea of working with IBM to bring it to his homeland.

IBM was in. Kao developed a typewriter that required the user to press four keys simultaneously to type one character. The drum inside the typewriter included 5,400 commonly used characters. The typewriter body was massive, but the outside featured a manageable set of keys.

Well, manageable if you could memorize the four-key codes. That’s where Lois Lew came in. Lew worked at an IBM plant in Rochester, New York. Kao desperately needed a typist who spoke Chinese to demonstrate his invention. Lew spent a week holed up in a hotel memorizing 1,000 of the most common four-key codes, and then she and Kao set off on a worldwide tour where Lew typed in front of crowds as large as 3,000.

While Kao’s invention was never sold due to the civil war in China, it represented one of IBM’s first major investments in eastern Asia.

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Photo: 4Max / Shutterstock

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Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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