[KS] Korean typewriters: An answer

Stefan Ewing sa_ewing at hotmail.com
Thu Sep 21 13:43:13 EDT 2006

Dear KS list members:

Thanks to everyone who's replied so far, and for the wealth of anecdotes and 

Thanks in particular to an offline correspondent, who pointed me to Naver 
Encyclopedia's article on the subject, "T'ajagi u^i Ku^lchap'an Chongnyu" 
("Varieties of Typewriter Keyboards"; 
http://100.naver.com/100.nhn?docid=730436 ).  Additional references are 
offered at the end of this post.  This is a rather long reply, so the 
following paragraph is an "executive summary":

As it happens, the same problems that stumped me also forced Korean adaptors 
of the typewriter to devise various ingenious ways to render Han'gu^l 
syllabary on a Western-shaped keyboard.  In all, four broad families of 
typewriters were developed over the years:
(1) Kong Byungwoo or Gong Byeong-u style, first developed in 1949 and the 
antecedent of today's 3-bo^lsik keyboard, popular for its speed;
(2) The Standard style promulgated by the government in 1969, whose teletype 
version was the forerunner of today's standard (since 1982) 2-bo^lsik 
computer keyboards;
(3) The Kim Dong-hun style, preferred for visual appearance but slower than 
(1); and
(4) The Oesol style.

The first mass-produced Korean typewriters were developed by Kong Byeongwoo 
in 1949 (Kim).  In all, three different kinds of typewriters associated with 
him were produced.  The most popular was the sebo^lsik (3-set-style), which 
contained one set each of initial consonants, vowels, and final consonants 
(Naver).  In all, 52 characters could be typed, with character keys spilling 
over into the top row of the keyboard (the number keys), and 13 characters 
requiring shifting to type.  Contrary to other typewriter styles, initial 
consonants were counterintuitively located on the right, vowels in the 
middle, and final consonants on the left of the keyboard (Ahn).  Presumably, 
initial consonants did not trigger the carriage to move whereas final 
consonants did, although I don't know what happened in the case of vowels.

Other Kong Byeongwoo-style typewriters included a 5-bo^lsik (not to be 
confused with the Kim Dong-hun style, below) and a Korean-English 
typewriter.  The latter had 3 cases: upper- and lower-case English, and a 
third, lowest case for Han'gu^l.  Lower-case English required shifting once; 
upper-case English required two-step shifting (Naver).

Dr. Kong's 3-bo^lsik was the most popular of the three and came to also be 
called the "sokto t'ajagi" ("speed typewriter"), in comparison to the Kim 
Dong-hun style (Naver).  It was adopted immediately by the military and 
introduced by them into government offices after the 1961 coup.  Complaints 
by officials of bad character appearance (the final consonants in particular 
looked odd (Ahn)--judge for yourself from the typescript sample on this 
page: http://blog.naver.com/dominia?Redirect=Log&logNo=140007052196) and 
"'forgeability' of the characters" led to a new standard in 1969 (Kim).  
Despite this, one or another variant of the 3-bo^lsik keyboard has survived 
down the present day, and is available as an optional input method on many 

The government actually promulgated two standards in 1969: a 4-set style for 
typewriters and a 2-set style for teletypewriters.  The typewriter had two 
sets of consonants and two of vowels  (Naver).  Presumably, syllable-ending 
consonants and vowels would trigger the carriage to move, while non-ending 
consonants and vowels would keep the carriage in place for the next 
character.  This typewriter never really caught on due to need to frequently 
use the shift keys and irregular appearance of some characters (Ahn).  The 
teletypewriter was a different story.  Its keyboard layout was virtually 
identical to that of modern computer keyboards, with consonants on the left 
and vowels on the right, including the use of "ae" and "e" to make full use 
of 26 alphabetic keys (extrapolating from Ahn).  An operator would hit the 
space bar once to separate syllables and twice to separate words, a method 
referred to as "space coding" (Naver).  In 1982, the teletype keyboard 
became the standard Korean computer keyboard, with the addition of the 5 
double consonants and 2 additional vowels in the shift position, as 
continues today (Ahn).  (I don't know at when auomated syllable formation 
was first developed--at which point a typist no longer had to manually 
divide syllables.  Anecdotally, I have heard that this arrived with the 
introduction of the Han'gu^l (HWP) word processor.)

The Kim Donghoon style was a five-set system introduced in 1959, with two 
sets of initial consonants ("hat consonants" and "edge consonants," 
presumably reflecting whether they were to accompany horizontally or 
vertically oriented vowels), two sets of vowels (followed or not followed by 
final consonants), and two set of final consonants (Naver).  Apparently, 
visual composition was more attractive than for Kong Byungwoo typewriters, 
but typing was 30% slower (Gong).  "Only professional typists could master" 
these typewriters (Ahn).  Kim typewriters were also called "ch'ejae t'ajagi" 
("formatting" or "style typewriters") (Naver).  Here again, I would presume 
that one set of vowels as well as the final consonants would have caused the 
carriage to move automatically.  A conventional-looking, Western-style 
keyboard may have been used, requiring shifting for some characters (see 
this image: http://100.naver.com//100.nhn?type=image&media_id=86695 , which 
might just be a 5-set Kong Byungwoo machine).

Finally, the Oesol typewriter, which was the most unorthodox of the lot, and 
may have been what Michael Robinson and both David McCann saw.  There was 
one set each of consonants and vowels on the keyboard, and three sets (two 
of consonants and one of vowels) on the typeheads.  By the sounds of it, 
typing a vowel would normally automatically advance the carriage (perhaps 
one had to use the backspace key to type, say, "wae" or "wo^").  For final 
consonants, the typist would depress the right shift key to type the 
character.  In so doing, the carriage would automatically move back one 
space to the previous syllable (Naver).

All in all, Koreans came up with a bewildering plethora of different 
solutions to the problem of squeezing the Han'gu^l syllabary into a 
Western-style typewriter.  To elaborate on Kim Tae-ho's abstract (thanks to 
Sang-Hyun Kim), a broadly acceptable standard Korean typewriter could not be 
possible until electronic technologies arrived, which in so doing eventually 
made the typewriter itself largely obsolete.

Sources (abridged):

Matthew Y. Ahn.  "AhnMaTae Phonetic Hangul Keyboard."  2000. 

Kim Tae-Ho.  "'Mechanizing Korean': The Evolution of Korean Typewriters."  
Circa 2004.  Abstract: 
http://www.histech.nl/Shot2004/programma/txt/tae_ho.asp?file=tae_ho (thanks 
to Sang-Hyun Kim).

Kong Pyo^ng-u (a.k.a. Kong Byungwoo, Gong Byeong-u).  "Han'gu^l T'ajagi u^i 
Cho^nso^ng Sidae" ("The Golden Age of Han'gu^l Typewriters").  In _Na nu^n 
Nae Siktae ro Sarawatta_ (_I Lived on My Eating Expenses_ [???]).  1989.  
http://start.linuxstudy.pe.kr/book/137.html (Opening page: 
http://start.linuxstudy.pe.kr/book/0.html ).

"T'ajagi u^i Ku^lchap'an Chongnyu" ("Varieties of Typewriter Keyboards").  
http://100.naver.com/100.nhn?docid=730436 (thanks to Samuel Henderson).


>From: "S Kim" <shkim67 at gmail.com>
>The question of how a particular design of typewriters has emerged in Korea 
>is in itself an interesting subject for historical research. In fact, a 
>couple of years ago, a PhD student in history of science at Seoul National 
>University presented a paper on that very topic at the Society for the 
>History of Technology Annual Meeting (see below). And its shorter, 
>semi-academic version has been published in "K?n-hy?ndae kwahak kisul kwa 
>sam ?i py?nhwa: Han'guk munhwasa 4 (Modern Science & Technology and 
>Changing Life: Korean Cultural History 4) [S?ul : Tusan tonga, 2005]."
>Hope that more historians/sociologists/anthropologists of science & 
>technology would join the Korean Studies list!
>Sang-Hyun Kim
>Program on Science, Technology & Society
>Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
>"Mechanizing Korean": The Evolution of Korean Typewriters
>- Kim Tae-Ho, Seoul National University, Korea
>(Society for the History of Technology Annual Meeting 2004, Amsterdam)
>This paper discusses the invention, development, and competition of Korean 
>typewriters, which can be regarded as quite unique among non-Roman alphabet 
>typewriters. One Korean character, which exactly corresponds to one 
>syllable, is made by combining several unit consonants and vowels in a 
>uniformly rectangular space. Though Korean typewriters succeeded in 
>¢®¡Æmechanizing¢®¡¾ Korean, this feature of Korean language has posed many 
>problems to the inventors of Korean typewriters.
>The inventors', as well as the public's, responses to these problems varied 
>according to their philosophical and social positions. GONG Byeong-u, an 
>ophthalmologist and an amateur inventor, devised a 'high-speed' Hangeul 
>typewriter in 1949, which was immediately welcomed by the military. The 
>military government, which seized power by the coup of 1961, forced the use 
>of typewriters in public offices. However, government officials criticized 
>the weak points of Gong's typewriter, such as the bad appearances and the 
>'forgeability' of the characters. They instead turned their eyes to the 
>idea of the linguist CHOI Hyeon-bae, and developed a different typewriter 
>with a different keyboard standard. The competition for the standard thus 
>In spite of the government's support, Choi's ideal could not be fully 
>incarnated in the mechanical typewriter. The standard keyboard established 
>by the South Korean government in 1969 was only an awkward compromise. The 
>government finally managed to devise a new mechanical typewriter in 1983, 
>but its mechanism was so complicated that it gained only a few users. The 
>choice of the standard was not made by the competition among the 
>typewriters in the market, but by the introduction of an entirely different 
>group of electronic typing technologies such as the electronic typewriter, 
>word processor, and personal computer. I will propose that the standard 
>Korean typewriter standard was "constructed" through the interaction 
>between social and technical factors, because it was not only market forces 
>and governmental interaction, but also the introduction of a novel 
>electronic technology that overcame the weaknesses of old "mechanical" 

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