Artifact

1 Billion People. 100,000 Characters. 1 Typewriter.

The machine that changed a language forever.

The Double Pigeon. (Courtesy SFO Museum)
The Double Pigeon. (Courtesy SFO Museum)
The Double Pigeon. (Courtesy SFO Museum)

All bureaucracies produce mountains of paperwork, and Mao Zedong’s sprawling authoritarian regime in China was certainly no exception. To process it all, the country needed a very special typewriter: the Double Pigeon. Under Mao, the Double Pigeon, known for its signature pale green color, was the preferred model among ordinary Chinese functionaries, Communist Party cadres, universities, banks, and police stations. But look closely and you’ll see that the Double Pigeon was no Remington knockoff. For starters, it lacked a keyboard. Instead, the machine relied on a rectangular bed containing 2,450 metal cubes (“slugs,” in typesetters’ lingo) — one for each of the most commonly used Chinese characters.

The first Chinese typewriter was invented in the 1890s, and its descendants, like the Double Pigeon, were cutting-edge technology. Products of a combined effort by Chinese and Western engineers and linguists, they represented a solution to a seemingly impossible puzzle: how to fit a nonalphabetic script — one that uses thousands of characters for even routine texts — onto a user-friendly piece of desktop machinery. “User-friendly” was relative: Typists had to move a mechanical arm by hand to the top of each desired slug and then press a type lever. Doing so caused the machine to lift the slug into a type chamber, which then swung up rapidly and struck the paper, before falling back and returning the slug back to its original location as the typist moved on.

At first, this process meant even skilled typists could produce only around 20 characters per minute (compared with speeds of up to 100 words per minute achieved on manual Western typewriters). And achieving even that speed required Chinese trainees to laboriously study — if not memorize — the locations of all those Chinese characters. Typing lessons focused on repetitive drills to imprint muscle memory, beginning with common two-character Chinese words.

All bureaucracies produce mountains of paperwork, and Mao Zedong’s sprawling authoritarian regime in China was certainly no exception. To process it all, the country needed a very special typewriter: the Double Pigeon. Under Mao, the Double Pigeon, known for its signature pale green color, was the preferred model among ordinary Chinese functionaries, Communist Party cadres, universities, banks, and police stations. But look closely and you’ll see that the Double Pigeon was no Remington knockoff. For starters, it lacked a keyboard. Instead, the machine relied on a rectangular bed containing 2,450 metal cubes (“slugs,” in typesetters’ lingo) — one for each of the most commonly used Chinese characters.

The first Chinese typewriter was invented in the 1890s, and its descendants, like the Double Pigeon, were cutting-edge technology. Products of a combined effort by Chinese and Western engineers and linguists, they represented a solution to a seemingly impossible puzzle: how to fit a nonalphabetic script — one that uses thousands of characters for even routine texts — onto a user-friendly piece of desktop machinery. “User-friendly” was relative: Typists had to move a mechanical arm by hand to the top of each desired slug and then press a type lever. Doing so caused the machine to lift the slug into a type chamber, which then swung up rapidly and struck the paper, before falling back and returning the slug back to its original location as the typist moved on.

At first, this process meant even skilled typists could produce only around 20 characters per minute (compared with speeds of up to 100 words per minute achieved on manual Western typewriters). And achieving even that speed required Chinese trainees to laboriously study — if not memorize — the locations of all those Chinese characters. Typing lessons focused on repetitive drills to imprint muscle memory, beginning with common two-character Chinese words.

By the 1950s, Chinese typists were shuffling the characters on the Double Pigeon to group together elements of common terms and phrases — a sort of precursor to predictive text. (Courtesy SFO Museum)

During the Double Pigeon’s life span, approaches to using the machine went through several evolutions — the most dramatic of which occurred in the 1950s, when typists across China began to experiment with new ways of organizing the characters on their tray beds. Instead of going by the standard dictionary layout, they rearranged characters to group together the components of commonly used terms and phrases. Originally, for instance, the character mao was far away from ze and dong, making it inconvenient to type out the ever-repeated name of China’s leader. Typists called the new arrangement the lianxiang, or “connected thought,” layout — a concept we know today as predictive text. Thanks to this pioneering work, the most skilled Chinese typists were able to hit speeds of around 80 characters per minute by the 1950s.

The final Chinese typewriter rolled off the assembly line sometime around 1991. The machines were replaced by new technologies, such as word processors and computers. Both the challenges and innovations lived on, however. The predictive text techniques created by typists became the basis of Chinese computing systems as early as the 1970s and gave their name to the world’s second-largest personal computer manufacturer, Lianxiang — or, as the firm prefers to be known in English, Lenovo.

This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

Tom Mullaney is Associate Professor of Chinese History at Stanford and author of “The Chinese Typewriter: A Global History of the Information Age” coming in 2017 from MIT Press. Twitter: @tsmullaney

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.