Many software developers have a crush on ASCII art. The idea of creating art with nothing more than the tools of our trade is tantalising. “You mean I can create pictures just by typing text into my favourite editor on a computer?” For many who often attribute themselves as being unartistic, ASCII art is a gateway into the wider world of computer generated imagery (CGI).

One of the cool things about ASCII art is that it pre-dates computers. It started out as typewriter art around the 1870s. Sadly, much of that pioneering work has been lost. It held a much lower status over ‘traditional’ art like paintings. Plus it was fragile; most of these typed sheets eventually got discarded or lost. I guess in many ways it was transient, like a lot of early street art. It was an approach that had yet to earn respect among the wider art community. The oldest preserved example of typewriter art is an image of a butterfly created in 1898 by Flora Stacey.

Typewriter art from 1898. Butterfly by Flora Stacey

The idea of shaping words into pictures predates both the typewriter and the printing press. There is a slick 9th-century astronomical manuscript, featuring a whole stack of constellations fashioned from handwritten words. These pictures fall shy of earning the title of ASCII art because they are missing an important element - the machine. Working within the constraints of automated typesetting systems is the necessity that shapes much of the form in ASCII art.

Fast forward to the 1960’s and we have the birth of ASCII art as it is nostalgically remembered by software developers. Early computers didn’t do pictures very well. You couldn’t e-mail images and many early printers substituted characters for other types of graphic marks. The first computers could do text, and that was about it. ASCII or the ‘American Standard Code for Information Interchange’ quickly became a standard for how computers stored and shared information.

Some of the first experiments with ASCII art on computers emerged from Bell labs. (You know, the crew that invented many of the foundations of our digital world: the transistor, the laser, the C programming language and unix.) It is a little amazing that this same corporation was pioneering computer-generated imargery at the same time. The sort of stuff that evolved and went on to become all the special effects and computer animated films we see today.

Kenneth Knowlton and Leon Harmon worked on “Studies in Perception #1” in 1966 while they were at Bell Labs. This image shot to fame when it was reproduced in the New York Times in October, 1967. In 1968, a 5x10 foot rendition later appeared in a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

ASCII art from 1967. Studies in Perception #1 by Kenneth Knowlton and Leon Harmon.

Skipping ahead to the early 1990’s and the IT industry started to realise that ASCII didn’t leave enough space. ASCII only had space for 128 characters, which was enough for America and the rest of the anglophones, but what about Japanese, Arabic and that sort of thing? The first volume of the Unicode standard was published in 1991 and added much more space. The latest version of the Unicode standard has room for more than 128,000 characters including glyphs for Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

This first version of the unicode spec included 78 ‘pictographs’, little graphic symbols that represented an idea or concept. They were an obscure subset of the unicode specification until the late 90’s when Japanese mobile phones added support and started rendering them. The Japanese word for pictograph? Emoji. It wasn’t until 2011 that the West caught up, when Apple included support for this part of the Unicode spec in iOS 5 for the iPhone.

Today, Unicode includes 1,088 different emoji characters, supported by pretty much all new digitial devices. In the space of about 100 years we have compressed Flora Stacey’s Butterfly into a single unicode character: U+1F98B or 🦋. Something that can be combined into larger works of ‘Emoji Art’.

When this article was being proof read, I got told it needed a punchline. So here you go:

👊 👊 👊 👊 👊 👊 👊 👊 👊 👊 👊 👊 👊 👊

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