H. K. Chow (周厚坤)

Despite the title of this blog, the Boxer Indemnity Scholars, this is the first entry to date which will be dealing with an actual student with a scholarship from the Boxer Indemnity Fund. Hou Kun Chow (周厚坤, pinyin Zhōu Hòukūn) was born on 27 September 1891 in Wusi, Jiangsu province. He was a student at Nanyang College in Shanghai, the current Jiao Tong University (Who’s Who of American Returned Students, 1917). He arrived in America on 11 September 1910 on board the steamship China, headed for Boston with the second group of Boxer Indemnity Scholars (ship’s manifest, link to Ancestry.com copy; Chow Hou-Kun, 2015).

Hou Kun Chow
Hou Kun Chow

 

Although H. K. Chow’s stated destination on the ship’s manifest was Boston, he didn’t go there right away. Instead, he began his schooling in America at the University of Illinois. This is where he shows up in the 1911 Directory, living at 1005 W. Illinois Street in Urbana, Illinois. He studied civil engineering (Who’s Who, University of Illinois Catalogue).  But by the 1912 Directory, he was in Boston, living at 33 St. Botolph Street and attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied mechanical engineering and naval architecture. He received a BS in each of these fields – that of mechanical engineering in 1912 and that of naval architecture in 1914 – writing two theses in support of his requirements (Chow Hou-Kun). By 1914 he was living at 93 Appleton Street in Boston (1914 Directory).

H. K. Chow was involved in the life not only of the Chinese students in America, but of the student body at MIT as a whole. He was a member of the MIT Naval Architecture Society in 1914, the MIT Chinese Club in 1915, and the Rifle Club and Cosmopolitan Club in 1916 (1915, pgs. 304 and 312; 1916, pgs. 256 and 265; MIT Yearbooks). This is only a partial list of his involvement at this time; the linked biography at “Chow Hou-Kun” is a very good and thorough description of his academic and extracurricular activities when he was in America. In 1915, he moved to the Tech Union, a residence hall on the MIT campus on Trinity Place, and began his Masters study of Aeronautical Engineering (1915 Directory). It was at this time that he began working on what would make him most famous: the invention of the Chinese typewriter.

 

The creation of a typewriter with Chinese characters was an engineering puzzle at the time. While English and other Western European languages have fewer than 60 letters, numbers, and symbols, Chinese languages have thousands of characters. H. K. Chow’s typewriter contained 4000 characters and was organized by radical and stroke order, much like Chinese dictionaries today (New York Times, 23 July 1916). Each character had to be found in the guide (the flat base where you can see the characters in this Wikipedia photo), aligned, and then the hammer struck on the cylinder to print the character on the page. It was truly a marvel of engineering and paved the way for future typewriter designs.

 

H. K. Chow returned to China after graduation and lived in Shanghai, where he exhibited his new invention at the American Consulate General (NYT). At the time, he was working for the Shanghai Commercial Press and hoped that his invention would be used in offices and printing agencies throughout China. He lived in Shanghai for many years, serving on at least one board of directors for a local business initiative – a funeral parlor (The China Weekly Review, 12 Jun 1926). In 1934, he appears in an article in The China Press, naming him the secretary of the China Merchants Ship Committee (China Press, 23 Feb 1934). He was still working for this company in 1937, when The China Press reported that he and a colleague were designing one of 26 new ships for the China Merchants company (The China Press, 27 Jun 1937).

After the Communist Revolution in 1949, H. K. Chow went to Hong Kong, and then the United States (Chow, Hou-Kun). I don’t have any re-arrival information for him, but due to privacy concerns it is often hard to find later arrivals to the US. In any case, his legacy is with me personally almost every day as I type in Chinese. I wouldn’t even be able to type 周厚坤 without the man’s own invention leading the way.

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