Words by Samantha Pak
The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.
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Typing on a “QWERTY” keyboard may take some time to master but at least the keys are pretty straightforward—you press on the letter “A” and you get the letter “A.”
When IBM debuted its Chinese typewriter in the late 1940s, what you saw was definitely not what you got. Mastering the machine involved memorizing thousands of four-digit codes—each of which corresponded to a Chinese character. And memorizing those codes and mastering the machine was exactly what the improbable Lois Lew did.
It’s been more than 70 years and Lew, now 96, has long since moved on from her IBM days, but she recently shared her story with writer Thomas Mullaney and Fast Company.
Lew started working at IBM in Rochester, New York after she wed at 16 because she was told married women didn’t go to high school.
“In those days, you didn’t see many Chinese girls,” Lew told Mullaney. “They would just use us for show: Chinese girls using an American typewriter.”
When the Chinese typewriter was unveiled, inventor Chung-Chin Kao, a Chinese American engineer who partnered with IBM to have the machine built, needed Chinese-speaking typists to demonstrate in the United States and in China. Lew fit the description, but without any traditional formal education, she was a less-than-desirable candidate. This became apparent when Kao tested her on the spot, asking her to spell “encyclopedia” in English. She couldn’t. But Kao needed Lew more than he let on, so he gave her a chance because he had “no choice” (his initial candidate, a college-educated woman whose husband was an engineer and father-in-law was a respected Chinese diplomat and journalist, fell through for reasons unknown). So despite Kao’s less than ringing endorsement, Lew took the job.
She was given a chart and tasked with memorizing the four-digit codes for 100 characters. Her proficiency with this initial task launched Lew’s journey around the United States and back across the Pacific Ocean to demonstrate the machine in China in 1947. While in China, Lew transcribed newspaper articles, translating passages (in her mind and each with hundreds of Chinese characters), into their corresponding four-digit codes, and inputting these codes into the machine efficiently and without messing up—all while making it look easy.
Although it was well received in the United States as well as overseas, it became clear relatively quickly that Kao’s invention was a failure. He just couldn’t convince the rest of the world that his coding system was practical.
After leaving IBM, Lew and her husband started a laundromat, reinvesting those earnings as well as her IBM earnings to launch Cathay Pagoda, a Chinese restaurant in Rochester that operated from 1968 to 2007 and attracted the occasional movie star, such as Katherine Hepburn.
Looking back on her IBM days, Lew, who still remembers a number of those four-digit codes, told Mullaney her one regret was not buying stock in the company. Instead, she bought war bonds.
Published on June 13, 2022
Words by Samantha Pak
Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.