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The Lost Ancestors of ASCII Art

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The Atlantic has a fascinating piece up about the origins of ASCII art.

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 \ …

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.

Read more.

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