In 1934, Dong-A Ilbo reported that Korean-American inventor Song Ki-ju (1900~?) was returning home after completing his Korean typing machine. Song Ki-ju graduated from Yeonhui College in Gangseo, South Pyongan Province, and went to the U.S. to study in 1924, earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from Texas State University in Houston. He then moved to Chicago to study geography and map making. He did not learn how to make typewriters professionally, but while he lived in the U.S., he learned how to use the machine of civilization. He modified the English typewriter to create the Korean typewriter.
Song Ki-ju’s typewriter was a vertical typewriter. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters were all written vertically at that time. How can you write vertically using an English typewriter developed for horizontal writing? The answer was surprisingly simple, but rather uncomfortable. Song Ki-ju’s typewriter and Lee Won-ik’s typewriter (estimated 1914) are both 90 degrees counterclockwise. With this, they could print the letters and pull out the paper and turn it 90 degrees clockwise to become a vertically written document. Of course, it would have been inconvenient, but it was an inevitable compromise at the time when horizontal documents were not treated seriously. In fact, Song developed a horizontal typewriter in 1929, but was shunned by the market and had to change the manufacturing line to vertical typewriting.
After returning to Korea, Song founded a company called Songil Merchant Association, and started the typewriter business by advertising “Joseon-gul typewriter” in newspapers. However, the business did not succeed because there was no demand for Hangeul typewriters. Song Ki-ju continued to improve his typewriter and waited for the right time. He was later kidnapped during the Korean War, and his life and death have not been known since.
We all believe that we know Hangul well. It is vaguely assumed that mechanization of Hangeul would have been easy because the principles of Hangeul are simple. The National Hangeul Museum has a two-bed mechanical typewriter on display for visitors to experience freely. It is not easy for young visitors to print sentences with it, even though they are using the computer with the seemingly identical two-bedded keyboard. It is much more difficult to figure out how to use Song Ki-ju’s typewriter without prior knowledge.
This story telles why research on scientific history needs to continue. It is also a story that the history of science and technology wants to tell you that what we take for granted is not really made for granted, that there is no inevitable reason why technology should evolve into the form we see and write today.
Featured Photo by Korean Cultural Heritage Administration