Meet the mystery woman who mastered IBM’s 5,400-character Chinese typewriter

I IBM Chinese Typewriter Lois Lew

Over 70 years ago, Lois Lew showed the world how to use the first electric Chinese typewriter. Via Fast Company

To type a Chinese character, one depressed a total of 4 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 4-8-6-2 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 continuously at a speed of 60 revolutions per minute, or once per second, the drum measured 7 inches in diameter, and 11 inches 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 special codes—telegraph operators, emergency responders, court stenographers, trained musicians, police officers, grocery store clerks. But none of them have to memorize thousands of ciphers or codes. This young woman was a virtuoso.

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