Development of (ASCII) Text Art
Pictures as "Text"
ASCII art and other "keyboard" art uses basic text characters to create a picture. Long ago, the written word did not consist of "text". Ironically, the first written documents consisted of pictures which represented ideas and objects-- not letters or text characters.
Note the hieroglyphics on a tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt.
Text as Pictures - Hand Drawn
Over time, the written word developed into symbols which looked more like present-day text. The very first text art pictures were drawn by hand. Creative people used ornamental penmanship to create wondrously beautiful documents and pictures. The monastic monks created breath-taking manuscripts which incorporated letters of text into their art. However, there were few other pieces of art that were made from text characters.
Illuminated Manuscript, Canterbury Cathedral Canterbury, England, UK ca. 1971-1996
An illuminated letter R legenda sanctorium at the beginning of an illuminated story of Saint Ipolitus from a manuscript at Canterbury Cathedral.
Individuals continued creating text art images by hand. During the Korean War (circa 1950), a very talented Korean named 'Gwang Hyuk Lee' made a hand drawn text picture depicting Jesus. He used the entire text in the Bible's "Book of John" to create this multi-colored image. Rumor has it that he was killed by the North Korean communists for creating this 16" x 20" picture. This work of art is beautiful and created entirely by hand! It must've taken an incredibly long time to complete.
I don't have any further information about this example of hand drawn text art-- I've been told that a poster of this artwork used to be available but I don't know where it can be found. ( thank you Ennis Trimble for sending the images )
Text As Pictures - Typography
People were relieved from writer's cramp once mechanical methods to create text were created. The Chinese are generally recognized as the first group of people to develop the stamp/ink printing process (2nd Century AD) and the movable-type printing process (11th Century AD).
Text As Pictures -- Typewriter
To many people, Christopher Latham Sholes is considered to be the inventor of the modern typewriter. His first machine was completed in September of 1867. E. Remington & Sons manufactured the typewriter in 1874. The keyboard has changed many times but the basic characters remains. There is an extensive history to the evolution of the typewriter. Visit a very informative web site which identifies the history of the typewriter: http://home.earthlink.net/~dcrehr/.
Typewriter-Related Links -history, keyboard, fonts, and more: http://xavier.xu.edu:8000/~polt/tw-links.html
Since 1867, people have used the typewriter not only for printing manuscripts but creating works of art. In the 1890s, typewriter manufacturers and secretarial agencies organized public speed typing competitions. They also organized competitions for typewriter drawings. The earliest preserved example of typewriter art was made in 1898 by a woman named Flora Stacey. Not much is known about Flora Stacey except that she was probably a secretary. Her framed picture of a butterfly was published in the October 15th, 1898, edition of Pitman's Phonetic Journal.
The entire rendering of this picture was created with the typewriter -- yes, even the butterfly! The butterfly is composed of brackets, hyphens, points, oblique strokes, a single asterisk, and several "o"s.
The journal commented:
"We think it will be generally admitted that the illustration is in the highest degree creditable to the artistic ability, skill and patience of the lady, and to the unique capabilities of the Bar-lock for this class of work. It may be noted that in competitions for typewriter drawings Miss Stacey has been extremely successful.... An outsider, or one unaccustomed to the use of the typewriter, can scarcely realise what an expenditure of time and patience is necessary in order to successfully execute one of these curious drawings. The paper has, of course, to be turned and re-turned, and twisted in a thousand different directions, and each character and letter must strike precisely in the right spot. Often, just as some particular sketch is on the point of completion, a trifling miscalculation, or the accidental depression of the wrong key, will totally ruin it, and the whole thing has to be done over again."
This brief synopsis describes some of the negative and positive aspects of typewriter art. First of all, once a mistake is made, it generally cannot be corrected. There are no delete or overwrite keys on a typewriter. Secondly, the positioning of paper can be crucial. One slip and the typewritten picture may be ruined.
There are a number of techniques available to the typewriter artist that are not available to the ASCII keyboard artist. A typewriter artist can manipulate the sheet of paper in various directions and angles. The characters can be spaced in any way -- often overstriking another character or "half-spacing" to achieve a special effect. Typewriter art offers more flexibility and variation than the computer ASCII art. However, ASCII art is much more forgiving.
Typewriter art was a popular art medium in the 1950s to the 1970s. There are many wonderful examples of typewriter art found in Alan Riddell's book, Typewriter Art (London, 1975). Some of the images are colorized by using tinted ink ribbon. Several of the images are abstract. A few of the images are portraits (Queen Elizabeth, the Duke of Edinburgh, Gandhi, Winston Churchill, and Henri Chopin). All of the pictures are superb. There is a listing of over 60 typewriter artists who have contributed to this 100+ image collection, one of whom is Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic.
Text as Pictures -- Teletype (RTTY)
Similar text images were broadcast via Radio Teletype (RTTY). RTTY is a machine-to-machine method of communication which takes place over radio or telephone lines. Its purpose is not for text art transmissions, but for text communication between operators. The teletypewriter (or teleprinter) was invented in the early 1900s. The largest manufacturer of the teleprinter in the United States was the Teletype Corporation. The term "teletype" is used to refer to the teleprinter. However the word "teletype" is actually a trademark of the AT&T Teletype Corporation (much like how the word "xerox" took over the copying machine industry). The radio teleprinter became popular with the public after World War II when surplus teletype machines became available at a reasonable cost.
These large machines provided a keyboard for input and a paper roll for printed output. Video monitors didn't become feasible until the mid-1970s. Even today, there are many active RTTY operators and clubs.
RTTY operators (ham operators) have used various codes to transmit messages. These codes include BCD, EBCDIC, Morgan code, and Baudot code. However RTTY transmissions typically used the five-bit, 32 character Baudot code. Initially, RTTY did not use seven-bit ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange). ASCII was not standardized until 1968. There are differences between Baudot and ASCII. Differences include bit-size and number of characters allowed. The Baudot code uses numbers, upper case letters, and some punctuation characters. It does not allow for lower case letters. The ASCII code uses upper and lower case letters, numbers, and more of the "standard" punctuation characters.
There are, of course, other differences between the two codes. For a more technical explanation, visit George W. Henry Jr.'s web site. George Henry (K9GWT) has put together a paper which describes the differences between the two codes. It provides some definitions for RTTY terms and examines the various interfacing standards used with ASCII and Baudot terminals:
Even though most radio amateurs In the United States use the Baudot code, they have been authorized by the FCC to use ASCII as well as the older Baudot code for RTTY communications. This took effect in March of 1980. See:
Several RTTY enthusiasts have started to translate Baudot code to ASCII. If you have some paper tapes of Baudot/ RTTY art which need to be converted, you can find a program to transform them at:
The text art images sent in the ham radio community consist of capital letters and are sent on long paper tapes. RTTY is slow. Transmissions are sent at 45 baud -- 50 baud is standard in New Zealand. Compare that to the 53,000 baud modem connections that we're using with our computers today! A large RTTY art image could take an hour to transmit.
The speed of the RTTY transmission is approximately 60 -100 words per minute. To get an idea of what it would look like, view one of the JAVA applets that simulates an RTTY transmission at http://www.megalink.net/~n1rct/sta/onair.html. (URL no longer valid 8/00) I would imagine that watching an RTTY art image materialize line-by-line would be quite mesmerizing.
History of RTTY and Major Contributors - When and where and how it started, and how it advanced and changed over the years. Stories and short biographies of those individuals whose efforts advanced the hobby and made it better for others.
Typewriter Art by Bob Neill - Persian Cat
Paper Tape / Punch Card Art
Punch cards and punched paper tape were ways that information could be stored and rebroadcast. Teleprinter messages could be received on tape and then be resent to other teleprinters by using a taper reader. I haven't seen artwork created from punched paper tape, but I do remember seeing pictures made with punched cards. The holes were punched in strategic locations so that when held to the light, the cards displayed an image. The card I recall seeing was that of a Christmas tree. Alas, it wasn't mine and it has long since disappeared. I welcome e-mail from people who remember this art and might have an example of punch card art in their attic or basement!
ASCII and ANSI Code
There are many sites on the Internet that thoroughly describe what ASCII is all about. I will not go into great technical detail. However I will list a few web pages that have additional and detailed information about ASCII.
To begin, ASCII is an acronym for the American Standard Code for Information Interchange. ASCII was created in the early 1960s but did not become a United States government standard until 1968. In the 1960s, there were many data communication codes that were competing for the US Standard. In 1962, IBM created and promoted a coding standard known as Extended Binary-Coded-Decimal Interchange Code (EBCDIC). This was an 8-bit code which allowed up to 256 characters. However it lost out to ASCII as a "PC standard". EBCDIC is still used on many mainframe systems even today.
ASCII was defined by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) in 1968 as "ANSI Standard x3.4". It has also been described as ISO 636. It is a 7-bit code that has a maximum of 128 characters/controls. ANSI is the Institute that defines American National standards. ASCII code is one of these standards. So, technically speaking, ASCII is an ANSI code. Got that?
There is another ANSI standard, ANSI Standard x3.16, which is an 8-bit code. This expansion was defined in 1979 in an effort to standardize graphic character representations and cursor control. It is based upon a 256 character set. It includes the 128 characters/controls of ASCII and an extra 128 characters/controls. It is sometimes called "extended ASCII" or "high ASCII", but it is really neither. It is a different ANSI Standard -- but not the "American Standard Code".
Have I totally confused you?
For more reading on ASCII and other computer codes, look to the following:
To view the ASCII Code Charts
Early ASCII Art
Perhaps the real start of ASCII art is with the beginning of the Internet. The Internet began in the 1960's as a means to communicate if nuclear war broke out. Military authorities created a network called ARPANET which connected 37 computers and several defense departments. No war came (thankfully) and the computer system expanded to include universities and other educational institutions. For many years the Internet belonged to the military and to the schools.
In the early 1990's, the World Wide Web was developed in the Switzerland. It was there that Hyper-Text Mark-Up Language (HTML) was first used. HTML is what allows documents to have 'hyperlinks'-- those links which cause a surfer to jump from web page to web page.
Many people use the Internet for e-mail. Initially, the Internet was pure text - no graphics and certainly no animations. E-mail was the same. ASCII art was used to create diagrams and charts. It was also used for "fun" and to enhance and liven up the plain text messages.
Besides digrams and charts, probably the earliest ASCII art from the Internet are the "Spy at the Wall" collection and the "Silly Cows" collection. David Bader, an ASCII art enthusiast and editor of the 'Cows", recently sent me the COMPLETE, UNCUT, ORIGINAL, and OFFICIAL Silly Cow collection! These cows can be seen all over the Internet and are truly considered to be "classic" ASCII art..
Bulletin Board Systems & Underground Art
ASCII art has also been used in the BBS (computer bulletin board systems) scene and in the underground art groups.
BBSs were developed in 1978 and became quite popular in the early 1980s.. MUDs (multi-user dungeons) and MUGs (multi-user games) also became quite popular in the early years of the Internet. These are all text based applications. So, if someone wanted to include a picture or diagram, it had to be created from text. Even today, BBSs, MUDs, and MUGs exist -- many are still text based.
For more info on BBS and Multi-User Dungeons/Games:
There is another group of people who have used/created ASCII art from the early days. These are the "underground art groups" who create and package zipped files of art which can be downloaded from the. Some of these groups have been around for many years and create ANSI, ASCII, "Extended ASCII" text pictures, and VGA animations.
Here are some relevant sites:
Relatives of ASCII Art
ANSI art is a cousin to ASCII art. It is often used on BBS (bulletin board systems). It also includes color and animation codes. ANSI art is still created today.
AOL Macro Art
Another place that the ASCII art is prevalent is on mIRC (Internet Relay Chat). There are a number of chat channels that scroll colorized "ASCII" pop-ups or pictures. Often the pop-ups include the "extended" characters. This is rarely a problem since users are tied into the same mIRC software. mIRC home page
There are many, perhaps thousands, of mIRC channels. Popular ones to "play" the colorized pop-ups include #mirc_rainbow and #mirc_colors. There are several IRC networks, the largest being Undernet. Other networks include Efnet, Dalnet..
And some related links:
ASCII Art Today and Tomorrow
The Internet continues to grow. As more personal and home computers are purchased, more people are joining in. The 1999 Internet statistics have been released. There are about 800 million pages on the World Wide Web. Compare this to the 320 million pages estimate of 1997.
Electronic mail (e-mail) is widespread. Almost everyone has an e-mail address. People have discovered that e-mail is an efficient method of communication with friends and relatives. There are a variety of e-mail software and programs available. Some e-mail programs allow for graphic images -- but not all. Even people who are capable of receiving images are hesitant to download unknown files and images. ASCII art is text. It does not have to be downloaded to be viewed. For this reason, many people opt to send ASCII art.
Microsoft declared ASCII art "dead" in June of 1998. Why? I'm not sure. But I would guess that Microsoft is encouraging people to use GIF and JPG graphics -- of course, with their software. I also think that it is due to the fact that some software, namely Microsofts, are now using a default proportional font setting. ASCII art will appear skewed when viewed in a proportional font.
All computer systems have capabilities for fixed-width font, so ASCII art isn't completely dead. People only need to switch their font to a fixed-width one such as Courier, FixedSys, Monaco, or Lucinda Console.
ASCII art is not dead. At least not yet. People continue to be intrigued and amazed by what can be created using basic keyboard characters. ASCII art is still used in e-mail, in e-zines, on BBSs, in MUDs/MUGs, and on mIRC. ASCII art has been used in web page development. The non-graphical graphics have served a purpose. ASCII art has also found its way off the Internet -- albeit slowly. It has been used to illustrate books (look for Jon Barnbrook's British Art History publication -1999). It has been used to illustrate in a magazine (see 1999 June issue of UK's EXE Magazine).
And it seems that someone has already gotten into the money-making aspect of ASCII art. For only $50 or £31.41, you can have an image turned into ASCII -- well actually, into the numbers that make up the value of Pi. The Pi image is constructed from the digits 0 to 9 (and one decimal point). Each digit has a different degree of darkness (grey scale). The final image is a black and white bitmap with the following size: 150 x 75 pixels. I wonder if people have actually paid money for this... it seems like a simple conversion program. Anyhow, take a look:
Image in Pi: http://www.hotbox.co.uk/p112.html (link no longer active - 8/00)
(c)1999-2000 Joan G. Stark aka JGS or Spunk unless noted otherwise. You can reach Joan at here new homepage at ASCII-ART.com.
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