Computer graphics have come a long way. Some video games today exceed what would have passed for stunning cinema animation only a few years ago. However, it hasn’t always been like this. One of the earliest forms of computer-generated graphics used text characters to draw on printers.
Early computer rooms were likely to have a Snoopy character on green and white fan-fold paper. Calendars with some artwork were also popular (see left, and find out about the FORTRAN that created it, if you like). Ham radio operators who use teletypes (RTTY, in ham parlance) often had vast collections of punched tape that held artwork. Given that most hams in the 1950s and 1960s were men and the times were different, a lot of them were more or less “R” rated.
Not all of them were, though. For example, Richard Nixon was decidedly “G” rated (see right). Simple pictures would use single characters, but sophisticated ones would use the backspace character to overprint multiple characters.
Ham Radio Art
You often hear this described as ASCII art, today, although hams usually use 5-bit BAUDOT code, so that’s a misnomer for those images, at least. Of course, today, people aren’t keen on storing roll after roll of paper tape (or even owning a tape reader) so there have been several projects to capture this art in a more modern format.
Although there is still some RTTY art activity, picture sending has been mostly replaced by slow scan TV (SSTV) which sends actual still images or other modes like FAX. Some of the newer digital modes even have the ability to send pictures. You can be discussing your radio for example, and then show the other ham a photo of the radio.
There’s no shortage of modern ASCII art. If you think about it, the text-based emoticons (like :-), for example) are one line ASCII art. Most of us know simple ones, but if you look around you can find an airplane: ‛¯¯٭٭¯¯(▫▫)¯¯٭٭¯¯’
Or maybe you’d prefer a robot:
If you prefer a famous robot, try this:
¦̵̱ ̵̱ ̵̱ ̵̱ ̵̱(̢ ̡͇̅└͇̅┘͇̅ (▤8כ−◦
There are web sites that will easily convert images to ASCII. For example, the Hackaday logo turns into an ASCII image nicely (see left).
You can find many collections on the web (including some with tutorials), of course. If you want to draw something from scratch, I wrote something back in 2002 you might enjoy called ASCIICad (see below, to left).
Then again, since it is so easy to create them, a static picture isn’t as exciting as it used to be. If you feel that way, perhaps you’d be more impressed by ASCII animation. If you’ve seen that one a few too many times, have a look at the video below for a more original take.
Impressive, although if you use VLC’s ASCII output codec to get a similar effect. Remember the Hackaday video about the KIM UNO clock? See below (to right) to see how VLC converted it into some ASCII art.
How Far Back Does This Go?
Sure, Teletypes and paper tape and green fan-fold paper is all old stuff, right? You might think this type of art can’t go back beyond computer printing. You might think that, but you’d be wrong. Look at the ad below from the New York Times in 1881.
Although the ad uses a character (“B”) to stand in for proper graphics. However, some of the characters aren’t whole, so it isn’t quite the same as computer art. However, it does show that people had the idea of using characters as graphic elements way before mechanical printers came on the scene.
Is there a practical use for this? Who knows when you’ll have a text-only LCD or printer and want to spice it up a bit? Or maybe you just want a retro look to a project. Even if those things never happen, ASCII art can be a lot of fun to look at and create.