She memorised IBM typewriter codes for 5,400 Chinese characters but couldn't save tech giant's ill-fated machine


I had seen this woman before. Many times now. I was certain of it.

But who was she? In a film from 1947, she is operating an electric Chinese typewriter, the first of its kind, 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 device. Kao is biting his lip, his eyes darting between the crowd and the typist.

As soon as I saw that film, I began to riffle through my files. I am a professor of Chinese history at Stanford University, in the United States, and I was years into a book project on the history of modern Chinese information technology, and the Chinese typewriter specifically.

By that point, I had amassed a large and still-growing body of source materials, including archival documents, photographs, and even antique machines. My office was becoming something of a private museum.

As I thought, I had indeed encountered the typist in my research, in glossy IBM brochures and on the cover of Chinese magazines. Who was she? Why did she appear so frequently, so prominently, in the history of IBM’s effort to electrify the Chinese language?

IBM’s promotional plan for the typewriter was necessarily multilingual.

The IBM Chinese typewriter was a formidable machine – not something just anyone could handle with the skill of the young typist in the film. On the keyboard affixed to the hulking, gunmetal grey chassis, 36 keys were divided into four banks: 0 to 5; 0 to 9; 0 to 9; and 0 to 9. With just these 36 keys, the machine was capable of producing up to 5,400 Chinese characters, wielding a language that was infinitely more difficult to mechanise than English or other Western writing systems.

To type a character, one depressed four keys – one from each bank – more or less simultaneously, compared by one observer to playing a chord on the piano. Just as the film explained, “If you want to type word number 4862 you would press four-eight-six-two and the machine would type the right character.”

Each four-digit code corresponded with a character etched on a revolving drum inside the typewriter. Spinning at a speed of one revolution per second, the drum measured 18cm in diameter and 28cm in length. Its surface was etched with 5,400 Chinese characters, letters of the English alphabet, punctuation marks, numerals and a handful of other symbols.

How was the typist in the film able to pull off such a remarkable feat of memory? Certainly, there are a host of professionals who, in the course of their daily work, are able to wield an impressive array of codes – telegraph operators, emergency responders, court stenographers, musicians, police officers, grocery store clerks. But none of them have to memorise thousands of ciphers or codes. This young woman was a virtuoso.

Excited to share the film with others, I posted a brief write-up about it on a blog I used to run, and that was that. One day, however, a comment appeared (a rare occurrence). “Thank You for the memories,” it read. “I am the woman demonstrating the Chinese typewriter in the recent restored movie. If you’d like more info please contact me.”

My heart skipped a beat. Could this really be her? Or was it a scam concocted by a netizen with too much time on their hands? I had to respond, but I proceeded with caution. In the postscript, I included a shibboleth of sorts: a question which, I knew from my research, could be answered only by the original typist, someone who knew her, or someone who, like me, had spent years in Chinese archives and rare book collections.

Lois Lew responded – accurately.

My doubts evaporated, replaced with excitement. I responded immediately, eager to arrange a time to speak. I had so many questions. How did she become involved in the IBM project? What was her background? What was it like to use the machine? How did she memorise all of those codes?

But my email to Lew went without a response. I sent a polite follow-up email. Silence again. Finally, the trail went entirely cold. I never learned why.

Lew and IBM’s typewriter were cover-story material for Chinese magazines such as the Sinwen Tienti.
PHOTO: Sinwen Tienti

It would be another eight years before I reconnected with Lew, this time thanks to a friend and former employee of hers. Like Lew, he saw a blog entry of mine and reached out. Perhaps because I was vouchsafed, thanks to my exchanges with her friend, this time the conversation took place. And it was well worth the wait.

“You’ve been looking for me for 10 years,” Lew said as soon as she answered my call. I could sense her smiling, sending my thoughts back to the 1947 film.

It was true – in fact, it was an understatement. When I first saw Lew, I was 29 years old. On the phone with her, I was 40.

She had travelled a far greater distance. In the IBM film, she was a mere 22. On the phone, she was 95.

I couldn’t believe I was finally talking to her.

When the IBM Chinese typewriter was debuted to the world, Lew was a worker in Department 76 of Plant 3 of the IBM office in Rochester, New York state.

Born Lois Eng on Dec 21, 1924, in Troy, New York, her early life was marked by struggle, political turmoil and near constant movement. Soon after she was born, her family returned to China. When the Sino-Japanese war erupted in 1937, Lew’s family was forced to flee south, largely on foot, on a perilous trek from north China to Hong Kong. Along the way, Lew recalled, there were times when she had to carry a sibling on her back.

In Hong Kong, her mother took notice of a family in the neighbourhood that struck her as financially stable. Engaging the help of a matchmaker, she inquired as to whether any of the sons in the family were eligible bachelors. She provided a photograph of Lois, and after some time received an answer in the affirmative.

Lois’ mother successfully matched three of her daughters this way, one to a man in Chicago, a second to a man in San Francisco, and a third – Lois – to a man in Rochester. All of these men, her mother was assured, were well off and more than capable of supporting their brides-to-be. 

At the age of 16, Lois ventured upon a transpacific voyage by herself, disembarking at San Francisco and then taking a train (again by herself) to Chicago. Her soon-to-be brother-in-law greeted her there and accompanied her to Rochester. She could speak and understand barely a few words of English.

Lew appeared in materials such as IBM brochures.

Upon her arrival in Rochester, Lois learned the truth about her husband-to-be – a man named Yuen Lew – and his financial situation. Far from living a comfortable life, Lew slept in the back room of his laundry shop, along with his sister, Gay.

Being too young to marry legally in the state of New York, the couple travelled to New Jersey to get married. Lois Eng became Lois Lew. And while her new sister-in-law would go on to attend high school, Lew was told that a married woman such as her did not do that kind of thing.

Lew and Gay were among just a handful of Chinese women in Rochester at the time, a fact that, counter-intuitively, may have contributed to their being hired by nearby IBM.

“In those days, you didn’t see many Chinese girls,” Lew recounted to me in our conversation. “They would just use us for show: Chinese girls using an American typewriter.”

Lew became a capable typist, as did Gay.

Then the IBM Chinese typewriter was unveiled to the world. Suddenly, IBM – and, above all, the typewriter’s inventor, Kao – needed to find Chinese-speaking typists to help present the prototype both in the US and in China. Lew and Gay were summoned to New York City to meet with Kao in person.

But then illness struck. Gay contracted tuberculosis, and needed to be hospitalised – and so Lew made the journey, as she had so many in her young life, alone.

Renting a room at a local YWCA, Lew hired a taxi, and was shepherded to IBM’s world headquarters at 590 Madison Avenue. She stepped out of the cab, gazed upwards at the 100,000 sq ft, 20-storey building, and entered the lift to meet with Kao. ⁠

As Kao read over Lew’s résumé, which exhibited nothing like an educational background, he was visibly displeased. “Do you know how to spell the word ‘encyclopaedia’?” he asked.

It was peculiar, insulting, a kind of aggressive non sequitur. Lew knew immediately what Kao was after: he was testing her, disappointed in her lack of formal education. But she also knew that Kao’s suspicions were correct: she did not know how to spell the word.

Overcome and on the verge of tears, Lew wanted to race back down to the street, back to the Bronx, back to the YWCA where she was renting a room, and perhaps all the way back to Rochester.

“Do you want me to go home?” she asked.

Kao looked at her, and then looked away. The room fell silent. His decision seemed to take a lifetime. Here Lew was, an IBM plant worker with not even a high-school education, who had already failed a basic spelling test in the opening moments of the interview.

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What Lew could not have known at the time, however, was that Kao needed her far more than she needed him. Before Lew, there had been another typist – another young woman, named Grace Tong, who Kao had hired to demonstrate the machine to journalists and executives.

Tong was everything Kao had wanted in an assistant. She boasted a college education. Her husband, Yanghu Tong, was a talented engineer. What was more, she was the daughter-in-law of Hollington Tong, a respected Chinese diplomat and journalist.

But then Kao’s plans were dealt a major blow. For reasons unexplained by the archival record, Grace Tong gave up on the job. One possibility holds that she may have fallen ill, rendering her unable to accompany Kao and the machine on national and international tours.

It is also possible that Tong’s professional life was being steadily consumed by familial expectations (she and her husband were expecting their second child around this time). Whatever the reason, the fact remained: Kao was now in need of a replacement, ideally one with all of the same traits as Tong.

For Kao, Lew was far from the ideal. Even still, she was Kao’s last best chance of winning over journalists and buyers as to the feasibility of his machine. If the world were to be convinced that his system was tenable – especially the coding system upon which it relied – it would be Lew’s job to convince them.

If she landed the job, that was.

The question Lew had asked lingered in the room: do you want me to go home?

“No,” Kao replied at last, “There’s something else about you.” Kao paused and then sighed. “I have no choice. I have to try you.

“Take this chart,” Kao instructed her. “Go back to your hotel, and memorise the four-digit codes for 100 characters.”

Over the next few days, Kao’s chart was Lew’s whole world. She knew she was on probation and everything depended on her ability to memorise this set of codes.

After her first stressful encounter with Kao, Lew spent a week poring over the four-digit codes for the probationary set of characters. She succeeded, and landed the job. And so began an unforeseen journey, one that would take her across the US and back across the Pacific.

The probationary period gave way to the real training regimen. In the span of three weeks, Lew would need to learn by heart – or, more accurately, by body – the four-digit codes for 1,000 of the most commonly used Chinese characters. Each day, she made the long commute from the Bronx to IBM’s offices.

The practice paid off. After completing the training, Lew became Kao’s main demonstrator for the machine, with shows held across Boston, New York and San Francisco. The striking young Chinese woman made an impression.

“My fingernails were red,” she recalls. “I had nylon stockings. They’d never seen anything like that.”

And then came the voyage to China.

The last time Lew had travelled by ship across the Pacific, she had been a teenager, all by herself, fleeing Hong Kong, and setting out to meet a husband-to-be whom she had seen only in photographs. This time, she was a grown woman, flanked by two IBM engineers and a Chinese inventor. All of her meals were paid for, as was an entirely new wardrobe. She told me that she felt like she was living like a film star.

IBM’s Chinese character typewriter.

To say that Kao’s hopes were high for the China trip would be a vast understatement. They were stratospheric. As Kao’s son recounted to me, the inventor converted an immense sum of money into yuan – possibly as much as US$250,000 (S$331,000), although this figure might be exaggerated. The cash filled an entire trunk. ⁠

With this enormous war chest, Kao would try to secure contracts, establish manufacturing arrange­ments and perhaps grease the skids a bit in a country that was racked by systemic corruption.

This was likely the last chance to translate those long, gruelling years into something that could make him as famous – in China, at least – as Ottmar Mergenthaler, Thomas Watson, or even Johannes Gutenberg. Kao’s name, his reputation and a small fortune were all riding on the trip – and on Lew’s performance.

In China, the reception was thrilling. In Shanghai, the mayor was waiting for them at the docks, along with photographers. Lew and the team were treated to sumptuous meals and stayed in one of the best hotels in the city. The first of a series of demonstrations took place at the IBM China headquarters. The following day, on Oct 20, 1947, Kao and Lew demonstrated the machine at the Park Hotel, then the tallest building in Asia. In attendance were scientists, local government officials and newsmen.

In Nanjing, the reception was even more stirring. The team was met by high-level government officials, and the visit was covered extensively in the Chinese press. Even before the team’s arrival in China, in fact, the local media had been watching its American demonstrations from afar.

For months, Chinese outlets had been circulating news of Kao’s presentations across the US, including those in San Francisco, in Boston at Harvard University and elsewhere.

In preparation for the demonstration in Nanjing, the city had arranged an immense auditorium, and with good reason. An audience of 3,000 people gathered to watch Kao, the machine and Lew.

Many would have been overwhelmed by the pressure, but not Lew. She had grown accustomed to the spot­light. New York, Boston, San Francisco, at IBM – all of these experiences had seasoned her, like a veteran Hollywood performer. In front of 3,000 onlookers and a nervous Kao, Lew was handed one newspaper article after another, one letter after the next, which she then was required to transcribe.

Kao and Lew were well prepared for this, however. During her training, Lew had been drilled in a variety of letters, in different, common styles. She knew them all by heart.

Coverage of Lew and Kao’s demonstrations in China was extensive, and overwhelmingly positive. Stories appeared in Science , Signs of the Times , Municipal Affairs Weekly , Science Pictorial , Science Monthly and many other outlets. Publishers were clearly enamoured of Lew. Her face soon appeared in IBM promotional brochures, and the 1947 film, among other media.

“I know how to dress,” Lew told me on the phone. “Very sexy looking. I was beautiful.”

For all the excitement over Kao’s invention, as the 1940s drew to a close it became increasingly clear to him that his venture had failed. No matter the success of the Chinese tour, and the American tour before it – and, above all, Lew’s stellar performance throughout – Kao simply could not convince the wider world that his coding system was practical.

American media cover­age of Kao’s typewriter did not help his cause. In a July 15, 1946 article in Time magazine, the opening paragraph said it all: “The Chinese have a practical reason for believing that one picture is worth a thousand words: it takes so long for them to write the words.”

In the end, however, it was geopolitics that would kill Kao’s project. “The Communist takeover in China was well under way at the time,” a 1964 retrospective article explained, “and was completed before the type­writer had a chance to achieve significant sales in an understandably nervous Chinese market.”

Not only did Mao Zedong’s victory in China push IBM’s anxieties to breaking point, it also threw Kao’s national identity into turmoil. He became a man without a country, being issued a special diplomatic “red” visa by the US. The IBM Chinese typewriter never made it to market, leaving the challenge of electrifying, and eventually computerising, the Chinese language to later inventors in the second half of the 20th century.

A publicity photo for IBM’s Chinese character typewriter.
PHOTO: IBM / The Smithsonian

For Lew, life after IBM took her in a completely different direction. She and her husband started a laundromat, and reinvested their savings, along with earnings from IBM, in the launch of Cathay Pagoda, a Chinese restaurant in Rochester, in 1968.

Located just a two-minute walk from the famed, 2,400-seat Eastman Theatre, the restaurant attracted not only a steady stream of students and young people but also the occasional movie star, Katharine Hepburn among them. Cathay Pagoda closed in 2007.

Now in her 90s, Lew swims at the YMCA once a week, for three hours each visit. She loves to eat and remains close friends with former employees of her restaurant.

Looking back on her time at IBM, she told me she has but one regret: “I could have bought IBM stock. Instead, I bought war bonds. Stupid!”

“I still remember the numbers,” she added in passing, referring to the four-digit codes from the Chinese typewriter. She began to rattle them off to me on the telephone. “‘You’, zero-two-seven-five. ‘He’, zero-one-seven-eight. ‘Me’, zero-three-one-four.” 

I couldn’t help but smile. Her vivacity and energy were infectious. Did she really remember the codes seven decades later? Lew had spouted them so quickly during the conversation, without any pause whatsoever, that I felt certain that she was speaking extemporaneously. I dug back through my archival records to track down Kao’s original list of four-digit codes.

Looking up the three codes she had recited, I could hardly believe my eyes.

This is part one of a two-part series on a brief history of 20th-century Chinese IT. Part two will appear next weekend.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.