Saving ASCII Art History

Maybe ASCII art will just be a short term thing, relatively. It might pop up in our culture a few times over the next thousand years and some people could take a mild interest in it. I’m not thinking ASCII art is a classic art form which will endure the ages. But, it does bother me that, in the future, most ASCII art will be credited to “Anonymous”.

It’s easier to label it all anonymous than to track down original artists. Especially when initials (artist credits) are removed often and some artists never did add their initials. They were just little doodles done for a momentary amusement, a puzzle to work on before getting some real work done.

With that in mind I think I am worrying about nothing, or putting more thought into this than it deserves. But, I don’t think so. Sort of anyway.

I have a lot of files I have collected, mostly in plain text. It will be a LOT of work to sort them out (decide which artist initials were original and which it may have been stuck with along the way) but I would like to get this done. For posterity, for archivists and for Internet history.

I don’t think I will even try to find a history for each artist. Most use just their initials, or a nickname. They would be too hard to track down. Maybe some future historian will have better data and be able to figure it out. At least a few.

For now here are cars, a traffic jam, from Koshy George. Some of the original site is still online and some is online at the Wayback Machine. Note, the bottom line of text is out of place. I started fixing it then noticed I still missed the tire under the cabin part of the truck. A lot of the old files have problems like this. I have to assume my fixes are as originally intended.

I’ve saved the ASCII art. I will decide, figure out, what works for starting to post it. I could make it a membership thing. Or send out some of it as a newsletter. I don’t have a lot of faith in newsletters but it seems to be what people like (maybe a mobile phone thing).

Typewriter Art History

Though Stacey may have well produced more typewriter art before her famous butterfly, none of it is preserved and the anonymous plate from the 1893 manual is now considered the first recorded example of “art-typing.”

Though early typewriter art made its mark, the golden age of the discipline was still decades away — it wasn’t until the concrete poetry movement of the 1950s–1970s, best described as concerned with “poetry that appeals to the eye and not the ear,” that the typewriter became a commonly embraced artistic medium.

Source: A Visual History of Typewriter Art from 1893 to Today – Brain Pickings

The Ancestors of ASCII Art

I especially like the idea that these styles of art, ASCII art, typewriter art, teletext and others, keep coming, without influence one from the other even. Just something people get an idea to make when they site down at the machine.

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.

These things did not evolve one from the other, so much spontaneously regenerate down through the years, time and again.

Source: The Lost Ancestors of ASCII Art – The Atlantic

Text Art Used for Newspaper Advertisments

It seemed that many of the newspapers of the era carried such illustrations, with large titles and sometimes simple shapes like hearts and crosses all composed out of type. I know it as ASCII art, but it appeared roughly a hundred years before the personal computer even existed. Of course, before there were computers, there were typewriters, and the first recorded instances of typewriter art date back to at least 1893, but I’d never seen a record of any other ASCII-type art as early as the 1870s. I felt like an archaeologist who picks up an ancient clay urn and finds a modern emoji on it.

In the early days of computers, those first graphics were text inside terminals or printed by daisywheel printers. However, unlike other ASCII art, the designs in these newspapers were definitely not created on typewriters—but painstakingly composed one letter at a time with blocks of type by professional typesetters. Nor are they actually art per se, but stylistic tactics employed to exploit scarcity as an advantage.

For most of the 19th century, newspapers were slim things. Every page had to be typeset by hand, meaning that the largest daily newspapers stretched to only 8 or 12 pages—and many were even shorter. Advertisers soon figured out how to exploit this scarcity of space by buying more ads than they needed, perhaps to deny their competitors any room. But once they had all that real estate, what do they do with it?

An ingenious solution emerged: What if, instead of giant letters, you could build large letters out of smaller blocks of text? I haven’t yet figured out the exact point when and where this practice started, but I did learn that it predated even the 1870s. I found an 1860 ad for hoop skirts in the shape of a skirt. And in 1862, Smith & Brothers brewery in New York placed ads with ASCII text in several papers nationwide.

Source: Solving a Century-Old Typographical Mystery – The Atlantic