Bob Neill is Alive and Well: A Brief History of Typewriter Art

Bob Neill is Alive and Well: A Brief History of Typewriter Art

Following the sad death of Bob Cobbing I am in a position to report
happier news. But as this is my first post to this group, I'll start
by introducing myself. My name is Andrew Belsey and I have been a
concrete poet since the 1960s, when I was introduced to the subject
at Warwick University by Michael Gibbs and Paul Merchant. They edited
the first number of KONTEXTS at the University, and Michael continued
as editor for some years. At some point he moved to Amsterdam, where
he continues to be active in the art world.

A few years later I became acquainted with Alan Riddell, and
contributed to his typewriter art exhibitions in Edinburgh (1973) and
London (1974), and to the resultant book, TYPEWRITER ART (1975).
Unfortunately Alan Riddell died in May 1977, when he was only 50, and
the British concrete poetry and typewriter art movements suffered a
blow from which they never really recovered. Had Alan lived, I am
sure he would have continued to be the centre of activity,
inspiration and encouragement for those working in the whole field of
concrete poetry. By this time his own typewriter art, which has been
exhibited (at the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, in 1978) but as far as I
know never published, was reaching sublime heights, even transcending
the fine examples that appeared in his earlier book ECLIPSE (1972).

Over the decades I have continued as an (amateur) concrete poet and
typewriter artist, while making full use of changes in technology to
produce ASCII art and computer verbal/visual graphics of all sorts.
(Most of this lies dormant on hard disks or in files, as it is
difficult to find outlets these days.) But I was always something of
a historian and archivist. In this role I was able to assist Joan
Stark with her HISTORY OF ASCII ART website, and Brenda Danet with
her book CYBERPL@Y, which includes a chapter on ASCII art and its

One thing that I mentioned to Joan Stark was that the British Library
Catalogue listed the following:


But I could not find any copies of these books, nor discover any
information about the author or publisher. Goudhurst, after all, is
not known as a centre of avant-garde publishing: it is a small market
town in rural Kent. A version of one of Bob's pictures, a Persian
cat, was posted on the Web by a Dutch source, but it gave no further

However, after several years of drawing blanks, earlier in 2002 I
managed to trace Bob Neill, who it turns out is alive and well and
even thinking of bringing out a THIRD book of typewriter art. Bob
readily agreed to a visit, so I was able to talk to him about his
life and work, examine his two books and take a photograph of him in
his study holding the books. (Unfortunately from my point of view,
Bob has just one copy of each book, so he was unable to let me have
copies. The books sold well and there must be quite a few in
circulation but they rarely come on to the second-hand market.
Luckily, though, since visiting Bob I have managed to obtain a copy
of the SECOND book.)

I also learnt from Bob that he had been working almost completely
independently, and was unaware of Alan Riddell's TYPEWRITER ART
or of other traditions in typewriter art, with one small exception: he
had seen an article, without any illustrations, in the STAR newspaper
about a Spanish typewriter artist. Though his work has similarities
to some of the contributions to TYPEWRITER ART (especially the
portraits by Will Hollis and Dennis W.A. Collins), Bob's books are
unique because they contain not only the typewriter pictures but also
the "program" for producing them . that is, the exact sequence of
keys to be pressed for each line of the picture, including overtyping.
(The result looks something like a knitting pattern!) Thus anyone
with one of Bob's books and an old-fashioned (non-proportionally
spaced) typewriter can produce replicas of Bob's pictures. Many of
his readers did do their own pictures following Bob's programs, and
he has also inspired some professional artists, such as Helen Jones
and Kirsty Lyall, who had a collaborative exhibition, WITH THANKS TO
BOB NEILL, in Nottingham in December 2000.

The subjects of Bob's pictures are portraits of people and animals.
Examples of people in the SECOND book include contemporary
personalities like Sandi Toksvig, Selina Scott, Benny from
CROSSROADS, Miss Elly and J.R. from DALLAS, Barry Manilow and Adam
Ant. (The likenesses are excellent.) His technique uses the strict
grid format of the typewriter. He uses overtyping, sometimes up to
three timeson one row, to produce character units varying in intensity
from very dark to white (space bar). Bob's pictures are thus like
half-tone photographs, only with much larger "dots." Sometimes, in
addition to the black characters, he uses a two-colour ribbon to
produce a red background.

Given the nature of his technique, it is not surprising that Bob was
aware of the possibility of computerising the procedure. The last
section of the SECOND book contains a program for one his pictures,
written in BASIC for the Commodore PET by Nick Higham.
Interestingly, while the typewriter "programs" remain as valid as
ever, this section on computerisation is outmoded. (Is there anyone
out there still using a Commodore PET?) Now there are plenty of
programs available for drawing ASCII art, today's equivalent of
typewriter art. But the best ASCII artists, like Joan Stark, will
have nothing to do withsuch programs and do it all by hand and eye,
and are thus still following the example set by Bob Neill and all the
other typewriter artists.

This has not really been a history of typewriter art, not even a
brief one. It is more like a personal recollection of some typewriter
art episodes and events, together with some general thoughts on this
strange but fascinating art form. But I hope it will also bring
deserved though belated recognition to Bob Neill. And perhaps it
will also stimulate some more old-time practitioners of typewriter art
(I mean from the 1960s and 1970s) to see if there is anything worth
recording in their own memories.


The Constant Rediscovery of the Typewriter as an Artistic Medium

In the history of science there is the well-known phenomenon of
"simultaneous discovery," when two or more scientists working
independently and without knowledge of each other come up with the
same idea or discovery at roughly the same time. It seems that
something similar operates in the history of typewriter art, only
without such simultaneity. Or to put it another way, typewriter art
has been (re)discovered several times. For example, I doubt whether
many of the contemporary contributors to Alan Riddell's TYPEWRITER
ART in 1975 were aware of experiments in the 1920s by Bauhaus students
or the Dutch typographer H.N. Werkman, with which the book opens. Nor
had they come across the work of Guillermo Mendana Olivera round
about 1960, now available through Joan Stark's HISTORY OF ASCII ART
website. So the fact that Bob Neill was, with the minor exception
mentioned above, unaware of other typewriter artists is not
surprising. And he has not been the only major typewriter artist
outside any group or tradition. A few years ago the work done by
Winifred Caldwell in America in the 1940s and 1950s appeared on the
Internet (now, unfortunately, it has disappeared). Caldwell's
technique was quite different from that of Bob Neill and the main
tradition of typewriter art, for she manipulated the paper in the
platen and used lines, brackets, dots and a few other characters to
draw more "naturalistic" pictures of houses, landscapes and flowers
(named "TypEtchings" onthe website). But her results are highly
skilled and as appealing as anything in typewriter art.


Brenda Danet, Cyberpl@y: Communicating Online (Berg, 2001)

Michael Gibbs and Paul Merchant (eds), Kontexts [1], 1969

Alex Hamilton, "Key Industry," The Guardian, 12 December 1975
(article about Riddell's Typewriter Art book)

Neil Hanson, "Alan Riddell," The Guardian, 27 April 1978 (review of
the Hull exhibition)

Bob Neill's Book of Typewriter Art (Goudhurst: Weavers Press, 1982)

Bob Neill's Second Book of Typewriter Art (Goudhurst: Weavers Press,

Alan Riddell, Compositions: A Retrospective Exhibition of Work by
Alan Riddell (1927-1977), Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, 8-30 April 1978,
foreword by June Road (unillustrated exhibition catalogue)

Alan Riddell, Eclipse (Calder and Boyars, 1972)

Alan Riddell, Typewriter Art: Half a Century of Experiment, New 57
Gallery, 105 Rose Street Edinburgh, 17 November-6 December 1973
(illustrated exhibition catalogue)

Alan Riddell, Typewriter Art: Half a Century of Experiment, Concourse
Gallery, Polytechnic of Central London, 35 Marylebone Road, NW1, 25
February-13 March 1974 (illustrated exhibition catalogue, with some
additions since the Edinburgh exhibition)

Alan Riddell, "Typewriter Art," London Magazine 13(4),
October-November 1973, pp. 63-67 (illustrated article about the
Edinburgh exhibition)

Alan Riddell (ed), Typewriter Art (London Magazine Editions, 1975)
(major source of typewriter art from 1898 to 1974; 118 images by 65
artists from 18 countries)


Winifred Caldwell, TypEtchings
longer accessible: produces "a connection failure has occurred"
alert. But at the last minute I discover that some TypEtchings are
now displayed at

Mobile Cube, Typewriter Art
(contains examples from Riddell's Typewriter Art book)

Brenda Danet, Cyberpl@y

(information about and extracts from her book)

Michael Gibbs, Nondescript Productions
(includes information on
Kontexts Publications, 1968-1983)

Helen Jones

Kirsty Lyall

Bob Neill, Persian Cat
(no longer
accessible: produces "not found" response)

Joan Stark, Gallery of Original ASCII Art
(superb work by the
undisputed Queen of ASCII ART. Joan Stark's website is difficult to
access: normally produces "temporarily unavailable" response)

Joan Stark, History of ASCII Art
(highly informative
survey from hieroglyphs to ASCII art, via typewriters and radio

Andrew Belsey
12 November 2002

Robots are Resilient

I made these robots as illustrations for a wellness journal to be published by a local non-profit health centre.

|| ||
/ || / || Awareness...
[bd] || [bd] ||
/|__| || /|__| || Even a little robot has
d b || d b || a place in this world.

/ Choices...
/ [bd]
/|__| [bd]/|__| We make our choices and then
d b d b our choices make us.

/ p__q Changes...
[bd] | |
/|__| /[pq] You were born with the ability to change
d b / someone's life, don't waste it.

Effective Email Greetings and Signatures

Start from the Introduction and read the entire Beginner’s Guide to Effective Email by Kaitlin Duck Sherwood.

A Beginner’s Guide to Effective Email
Greetings and Signatures
Kaitlin Duck Sherwood

Every new medium develops its own protocols for opening and closing. Telephone conversations start with "Hello" and end with "Goodbye". Letters open with "Dear" and end with "Sincerely". Because email is so new, there aren't firm customs on how to open and close.

Many people do not give either a salutation or a signature. After all, while a letter can get separated from its envelope easily, it is difficult to separate an email message's body from its addressing information. The email message itself says who it is to and from.

However, that information might not be adequate for your needs. It might be difficult to find with some email reading software. It might be unclear or ambiguous. It might be inadequate for telling the receivers just why they are getting that message. Or, it might not convey the proper formality or status cues for your purposes.

I will give you my thoughts on openers and closers, but you need to think carefully about what you are trying to convey both explicitly and implicitly. You also need to take the culture and customs of all parties into consideration.

Salutations are tricky, especially if you are crossing cultures. Frequently, titles are different for men and women, and you may not be able to tell which you are addressing. The family name is first in some cultures and last in others. Honorifics may vary based on status or age. So don't feel bad if you have trouble figuring out which salutation to use: it is a difficult problem.

In the United States, it is a bad idea to use "Sir" or "Mr." unless you are absolutely certain that your correspondent is male. Similarly, it is probably safer to use "Ms." instead of "Miss" or "Mrs." unless you know the preference of the woman in question.

In the United States, using someone's first name is usually ok. Thus, you can usually get away with a "Dear" and the first name.

Dear Chris:

Here you are covered regardless of whether Chris is male or female. (Beware of using a diminutive if you aren't certain your correspondent uses it. It might rankle Judith to be called Judy; Robert might hate being called Bob.)

If you are addressing a group of people, you can say "Dear" plus the unifying attribute. For example:

Dear Project Managers:


Dear San Jose Lasers Fans:

Do You Even Need A Salutation?
Given that email is relatively informal, frequently (in the United States) there isn't a problem with dispensing with names and titles altogether, especially if you are in a higher status position than your correspondent:

Hello - I saw your web site and wanted to mention that
I invented the thromblemeister on Feb 29, 2403, *not*
on Feb 28, 2402.

I usually use a simple "Hi" for people that I already know:

Hi - Are you interested in getting together for
sushi next week? I can bring all my wedding pictures
and bore you to death. ;-)

"Good Morning" and "Good Afternoon" don't make a lot of sense with email, as the sun may have moved significantly by the time your correspondent gets around to it. "Good Day" sounds stilted to American ears (although it is common in other parts of the former British Empire). You may want to avoid "Greetings" in the United States: it reminds many people of the draft notices young men got during the Vietnam War.

Again, you must be careful about cultural differences. The East Coast of the United States is more formal than the West Coast (where I live). Germans are even more formal; they can work side-by-side for years and never get around to a first-name basis. Starting a message to Germany with Dear Hans might be a bad idea.
When I get email from strangers, I care more about what connection they have with me than how they address me. When you send email, particularly someone who doesn't know you, it would be good if you would immediately answer these questions:

How did you learn of your correspondent?
What do you want from your correspondent?
Who are you?
Why should your correspondent pay attention to you? (If you can't answer this question, you should wonder if you should even send the email.)

Putting some of that information in a signature is better than nowhere at all, but putting it at the top is better for several reasons:

If there is a problem with the transmission of the email, the end is much more likely to get lost than the beginning.
A lot of people get more than twenty messages per day, and so read them quickly. If you don't establish quickly who you are, your correspondent may delete your message before they get to the bottom.
Your identity is an important clue to the context of the message.

Good answers to the questions can take several forms:

Dear Ms. Sherwood: I am an editor at Very Large Publishing
Company, Inc. I sat next to your husband on United last week,
and he mentioned that you are interested in publishing a book
based on your email guide. I have read your guide, and would be
very interested in receiving a proposal from you.


My name is Dave Wilcox and I'm the legal counsel for
Thromblemeisters Direct, Inc. We are deeply disturbed at
the aspersions you cast upon us and on thromblemeisters in
your email guide. Therefore, we order you to immediately
cease and desist using any reference to thromblemeisters
in your email guide. If you do not, we will be forced to
file suit against you or your descendants if and when we and/or
thromblemeisters come into existence.

Or even:

Hi - I am a novice email user and just read your email guide.
I don't know if you are the right person to ask or not, but do
you know what the French word for "Mister" is? If you can tell
me the answer, I'll send you a funny postcard.

Some good friends of mine recently got email from my cousin for the first time. Unfortunately, not all of the email made it through. The message they got said only:

Dear Rich and Chris: I met you at Jim and Ducky's wedding.

But, because he identified where he knew Rich and Chris from immediately, it was enough information that they knew he was someone to pay attention to. They replied to him and communication is now going smoothly between them.

Many email programs allow you to set up a default signature to be included at the end of every message. Many people use these signatures as an easy way to give their name and alternate ways of reaching them. For example:

Hi - when did you want to go to lunch?

Rebecca P. Snodwhistle
Thromblemeisters Direct, Inc.
666 Beast Street
Styx, HI 77340
+1 (959) 123-4567 voice
+1 (959) 123-4568 FAX W (personal)

Such an extensive amount of signature information in contrast to such a short question looks silly to me. I think much of the above signature is extraneous. If they got the email from you, they can reply by email, so don't need your FAX number or street address. (If they have to send a FAX or package, they can ask for addressing information.) They already have one email address in the message you sent, and don't need your other email address.

The name is perfectly reasonable to include, especially if

Your email messages don't include your full name in the From: line. (Send yourself email to see if your name is there or not.)
The name in the From: line doesn't match the name you actually use. (Christina might actually go by Chris, but her company might insist on using her full name as her email name.)
The email account is shared by multiple people. (My husband and I have a joint email account, for example.)

The telephone number is also a reasonable thing to include - if you are willing to be interrupted by a phone call. Emotions are easier to convey over the phone, and some people prefer phone to email for all circumstances.

If the message is business related, including the company name is a reasonable thing to do - even if the message is going to someone else in the same company.

One thing that is missing from Rebecca P. Snodwhistle's signature, above, that I would like to see is her job title. Is she the vice-president of sales or the shipping clerk? That may have more of an influence on the correspondent than anything else.

So I would rewrite the above signature to be:

Rebecca P. Snodwhistle
Chief Executive Officer, Thromblemeisters Direct, Inc.
+1 (959) 123-4567 voice

That signature is still overkill for arranging lunch, but it isn't always convenient to switch between having your signature included or not.

Some people put things purely for entertainment in their signature: artwork, philosophical sayings, jokes, and/or quotations in their signature. This can be ok, but don't overdo it. A good heuristic is to keep your signature at or under five lines long.

After setting up a signature that is included automatically, it is easy to forget about it. (After all, your email software might not show it to you, or it might be so routine that you never look at it again.) So whenever a piece of contact information changes, make sure to revisit your signature to make sure that it is still up-to-date. And, if you have an entertainment piece in your signature, change it every once in a while. It wasn't as funny the fiftieth time your coworker saw it as it was the first time.

One final note on signatures: they are a good way to let your correspondent know that all of the message got transmitted properly. There is no body language to signal that you are "done talking" and, unfortunately, email transmissions sometimes get interrupted.

Many people put pretty separators - lines, horizontal bars, and so on - around their signatures. For example:

Rebecca P. Snodwhistle | CEO, Thromblemeisters Direct, Inc.
+1 (959) 123-4567 voice | +1 (959) 123-4567 fax

These are very pretty to sighted people, but imagine what it would be like for people who are so visually challenged that they have their computer read their email to them: "hyphen hyphen hyphen hyphen hyphen hyphen..."

That said, some email programs recognize "-- " as a signature separator, and so can process the signature differently. (For example, some programs don't include the signature in quotes.)

Technically, the signature is supposed to be two hyphens plus a space, but it's very common to see just two hyphens without the space.

If you are well-known to your correspondent, you can probably get away without including extra identification. In other cases, you should provide your correspondent with enough clues to figure out who you are, why you are writing, and why he or she should pay attention to you. Preferably, this information will be at the top of the message.

Greetings are difficult to do well, especially if you are crossing cultures and/or languages. In the United States, you can be pretty informal, but even in the U.S., you need to be careful that you aren't either making assumptions or using sensitive words.

Go on to Summary

Go back to the beginning
Go back to Formality

Created 30 Oct 1998
Slight modification 28 Dec 1998
Added caution about using lots of dashes 1 Mar 1999
Fixed typo 24 Feb 2000
Beautified page 23 May 2001
Added info about "-- " separator 13 June 2002