The Lost Ancestors of ASCII Art

People will make art with any technology.
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Beavis and Butthead text art (Textfiles)

ASCII art is as much a part of the Internet as emoticons, cats, or lol.

We're talking about pictures made from text: letters, numbers, and special characters like # * and \ . They look like this.

Groucho Marx (Textfiles)

Sometimes letters are used just to form other, bigger letters. 

Section of Peace on Earth (Textfiles)

And, of course, they are often used to create pornography. 

Section of Ingrid (Textfiles)

Though it is still around today, ASCII art reached the zenith of its popularity before the web. It was the visual language of BBSs, Telnet, and many other pre-WWW networks. In a wholly text-based world, these works proliferated. For the brief moment that modems were the preferred mode of access to other computers, they were useful. And their sketchy aesthetic seemed right for mediums that were provisional and changing rapidly. 

So, I've always thought of them as native creatures of that time, serving a need for pictures when there wasn't bandwidth to transmit them. 

But that's not the case.

The history of ASCII art goes deeper, and much of it is told only in Geocities blog postings, abandoned websites, Google Books, and scattered PDFs across the web. 

This post traces a fascinating and mostly lost strand of that history: The way thousands and thousands of people made typewriter art, from amateurs to avant gardists.

What they created is, in some cases, strikingly similar to the ASCII art of the BBS days, but how they thought about what they were doing depended on the times in which they worked.

Perhaps the one constant? This kind of text art has been snickered at and marginalized since the 1890s. 

But as fewer and fewer typewriters clack away, striking ink to paper, and text continues to cede ground to the hypervisual web, a patina seems to be growing on the art form. 

This spring, a new anthology will debut, Typewriter Art: A Modern Anthology, edited by Barry Tullett. And Lori Emerson, an English professor at UC-Boulder and director of the Media Archaeology Lab, has been excavating examples of mid-century "artyping." It was her tweets and posts that set me off on a journey to put together a rough sketch of the pre-history of ASCII art. 

* * *

In September of 1893, a magazine called Illustrated Phonographic World, which was "Devoted to the Interests of Shorthand and Typewriting," struck back at two other publications for hating on typewriter art. 

The Reporter's Journal agreed with the Phonetic Journal about "the foolishness of attempting to make sketches by means of typewriters." Furthermore, the London publication continued, "Some of our American contemporaries indulge largely in facsimiles of this class of work, and this has tended to foster the absurd custom." 

Stung by the white glove, Illustrated Phonographic World set out to prove that typewriter sketches were indeed worthy of respect. "We believe that any endeavor which will cultivate painstaking and accuracy on the part of operators should be encouraged," they wrote. "The endeavor to excel in artistic typewriting unquestionable does this. The pen maketh the exact man; so will the typewriter, which is only the modern pen."

Along with this hearty defense, they published an image created by one Flora F. Stacey, of the Santa Maria, one of Christoper Columbus' ships and offered $5 in cash for a further "artistic specimen" sent in by readers. Of those they published three that I could find, including another by Flora Stacey, the butterfly on the right. In the middle, we find Christopher Columbus himself, courtesy of Mr. Frederick Carles of Boston, Massachusetts. 

From the commentary at the time, people couldn't help themselves. Some people just liked making pictures with typewriters.

At least one scholar connected up typewriter art and pointilism as pointing the way to the idea of pixels on a screen being used to represent everything. 

"Seen from a distance, the hundreds of dots, in virtue of the visual phenomenon known as persistence of vision, coalesced into larger figures," applied mathematician Philip Davis wrote of Georges Seurat's pointilism. "When in the 1880s typewriters became commonplace, this kind of image was done on the typewriter with letters or blank spaces, was known as typewriter art. In the first generation of computers, typewriter art was automated, and pictures of Washington, Lincoln, Harry Truman etc., were produced in this way. When computer output moved from the typed page to the television or video screen, the whole screen was subdivided into a certain large number, say 1,024 x 1,024 = 1,048,576 areas or so-called 'pixels', each of which could be addressed, shaded, coloured or otherwise transformed or manipulated." 

In other words, the decomposition of images into lots and lots of little marks was a conceptual step towards the pixel. In this telling, typewriter art is not merely an ancestor of ASCII art, but of everything that goes on a screen. The television, the CRT monitor, the iPhone. 

After the 1890s, typewriter art pops in and out of history. In the 1920s, Bauhaus artist H.N. Werkman made what he called "Tiksels." They are abstract pieces of typewriter art.

H.N. Werkman

But typewriter art was not, generally, a high art form. 

The Media Archaeology Lab's Emerson digitized a rare 1939 book called Artyping by Julius Nelson, a typing instructor at Windber High School in Windber, Pennsylvania, which had a population of about 9,000 people when the book was published. 

Nelson sponsored the "Artistic Typing Competition" for more than ten years, drawing more than a thousand entries in some years, according to newspaper reports. And by the late '40s, he'd accumulated 12,000 examples of typewriter art.

In 1939, he'd just finished the first year and his enthusiasm for the form is evident in the preface. 

"Although recently emerging from its experimental stage, "artyping" is still in its infancy," Nelson writes, "and if the host of typists throughout the world could have seen the variety of designs submitted to the author in a recent nation-wide artistic typing contest which he sponsored, anyone would have been more than willing to admit that really tremendous possibilities lie ahead to the ambitious, to the talented, and to the patient."

The rest of the book is composed largely of instructions and examples of the best of artyping in the day. This author and typist is ready to admit that there were a lot of people putting in a lot of hours at the keyboard. 

My favorite sequence shows how to construct "soldiers" on they keyboard. "No treatise on the subject of artistic typewriting would be complete without some reference to, and directions for, making 'soldiers' on the typewriter," he says. "There is something about this simple 'artyping' which is both fascinating and instructive, especially because it tests ingenuity and originality of the 'artypist.'"

The X and & form the torso and head. The / is the gun. The W becomes legs and the - feet. The brain does the rest. 

Here's how it works in practice, GIF'd:

But this is the kid stuff. There were ornamental borders and ways of doing lettering.

There are portraits, like this one of Lincoln, which Nelson notes, "was made by striking over twenty-six times. All of the letters of the alphabet were used."

There was a little man that Nelson nicknamed Typo. 

There was this "Scene in the Orient" made from @s.

And a car made of Hs.

To me, though, it's the portraits that are most interestingly transformed by the process. Some of them assume a haunting quality, especially about the mouth and eyes. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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