Science: Faster Chinese

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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. And all their written words are conventionalized pictures anyway. Last week a new typewriter designed to speed up Chinese writing was exhibited in Manhattan. Chinese engineer Chung-Chin Kao had had the idea. International Business Machines Corp. had translated it into an electro-automatic Chinese typewriter. (Chinese typewriters are not new, but most models have been clumsy and inefficient.)

The machine, which would give a U.S. stenographer the heebie jeebies, has 5,400 characters (the most commonly used of the 80,000 in the Chinese language), mounted on a drum. Its keyboard has only 43 keys, 36 of them numerals. To operate the machine, a typist must memorize 5,400 combinations of four numbers each; every combination represents a Chinese word or ideograph. Pressing the keys revolves the electrically operated drum and brings the coded characters into place for printing.

It takes two months for an operator to learn to write simple sentences, four months to achieve the machine's top speed—45 words a minute (par for a fast typist in English: 120 words).