Retrotechtacular: The History Of ANSI And ASCII Art

These slides may not be the style of character art you remember from the days of 2400 baud modems; they’re more advanced than what was out there in the beginning. It turns out there is still some life left in this art subculture. For this week’s installment of Retrotechtacular we look in on [Doug Moore’s] talk on the history and survival of ANSI and ASCII art given at this year’s BSides conference.

ASCII is still a common character encoding so chances are you’re already familiar with it. ANSI on the other hand is a rather confusing term as it’s been lost in obscurity when referring to character sets. In this case it refers to a set of extended characters which is better described as Windows Code Pages.

Most of what we know about the ANSI art scene is from watching BBS: The Documentary (which is on our ten best hacking videos list). We certainly remember seeing the vertically scrolling art after connecting to a dial-up BBS back in the day. But understanding the factions that formed around the creation, bundling, and distribution of this is art is fascinating. [Doug] does a great job of covering this history, sharing side-by-side examples of the shunned practice of “ripping” another artists work. This image is actually not a rip. Later in his talk he discusses the continued existence of the subculture, showing what a modern take on the same subject looks like.

If you’re merely into the technical the first half of the video below is worth watching. But we bet it’ll be hard not to continue to the end for a side-trip into art history.

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

34 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: The History Of ANSI And ASCII Art

        1. Until you’ve seen one of these pictures form on a 75 BPS TTY machine that’s using an HF RTTY radio link to get the “data” you haven’t really known anticipation. As an “old fart” I can say that to you “young whiper-snappers” ;-)

          1. I have a Teletype machine in the garage. It has an yellowed, old note on it that says:

            “When you have logged off, call the gods on the hill to tell them you are dropping the connection.”

            This machine is an upscale version, with a 7 bit baudot paper tape read/write.

    1. I remember a guy at work showing me a picture of a naked girl “drawn” on an old Teletype machine. Actually looked pretty good, all things considering. Kinda like the early porn photos in 16 colors, but in B&W.

      The characters would be printed over and over on a single spot, until just the right shade and shape of coloring was induced. From the looks of, several characters, would print over and over, like 100 times or so. Interesting the way they did that, selecting just the right characters, to give just the right shape to the “square” of shading, and by doing it over and over, they would get just the right “color” depth.

    2. Here’s another story from the distant past…

      There used to be a small computer conference called SIGgraph every year. I used to attend the one in Atlanta. The con had high end computers and visualization of data. It was attended by scientists and engineers. One year in the late 1980’s a weird group of people (weirder than scientists and engineers) showed and these people had a lot of money to spend and they didn’t seem to have a clue about technology of computers. These people wanted porn graphics and kept asking if it could be animated. It was embarrasing.

      That’s when the conference went down hill and I stopped attending.

      1. I suspect that odd group of people are responsible for the massive and very lucrative porn industry of the internet. I guess that is saying something. Of all the data visualization technologies the most prominent (aside from cat pictures) is porn. They were more forward thinking than first appearances showed.

        1. Back in those days, you didn’t catch as much hell for having a ascii pinup as you did for having a foldout of some monthly playmate. Being geeks, it was easy to squint a little and appreciate the heavenly curves and avoid the wrath of management for posting pictures from Playboy.

  1. I think you’re wrong about the term “ANSI”. As I remember it, people (at least the ones running bulletin-boards near me) used the term ANSI to mean the ANSI X3.64 escape sequences which were part of the VT100 terminal emulation used by so many bulletin board systems. The escape sequences allowed bold and reverse video, both used for graphics; as well as moving the cursor around the screen, and partial screen scrolling – used for animation. The term was in use before Windows 3.0 existed.

    1. As a member of the ANSI/ASCII scene, I can say that he is not wrong. In fact, both of you are correct. The ANSI escape sequences are what were used in order to add color to the blocks used in these drawings, and so it was affectionately referred to as “ANSI art”. ASCII art didn’t necessarily just mean text without ANSI escape codes, either; if a piece of art simply avoided using the shaded block characters iconic of ANSI artwork, it was labeled ASCII (even if it was colored and used other extended ASCII characters).

      haliphax // remorse / ACiD

      1. I’ve found, over the years, that, like, 20 people know and remember ANSI Music. It’s one of those moments in time that’s deserving of a book. Or, maybe Doug needs to start having some essays go on Sixteencolors to accompany the works? It seems like a good time to do it.

  2. When the best color video card available for a PC was the CGA (Color Graphics Adapter) many games used the ANSI character set in various ways. The KROZ series used it for dungeon walls, the player and enemy characters, weapons and many other things. Some games used ANSI art for intro and loading screens. Aside from the really low-res mode used by very few games (most notably the first Prince of Persia), ANSI graphics were the only way to get 16 colors on CGA.

    Even when EGA (Enhanced Graphics Adapter) was introduced and could display 16 colors in 640×350 full bitmap mode, many games stuck with ANSI graphics to remain compatible with the old CGA cards and they’d work on EGA because it supported all the CGA modes. EGA had a 64 color palette but could only display 16 at a time. There was a crude demo using palette cycling to show all 64 colors at once on EGA but since the refresh rate was fixed the flicker was horrible and nobody ever used it for anything serious other than that proof of concept. (If there’s a 64 color EGA game or demo besides the “See, it can be done!” one, I’d like to know about it.)

    The more ambitious game programmers (or the ones who could do better art or hire it done) did games with bitmap art optimized for CGA and EGA. As CGA faded out the game companies stopped bothering to do the best they could for CGA. When VGA was introduced there was a bit of a split due to some models of the IBM PS/2 line that had a half-arsed system called MCGA with VGA’s 320 x240 256 color mode but not the full VGA 640×480 256 color mode. That begat the huge number of games with 320×240 256 color support – mainly for reasons of compatibility with the PS/2 line and because it took 1/4 the graphics data than full VGA. Reasons of economy all around in order to make the game usable for the biggest number of players, same as a few years prior with ANSI graphics.

    Once resolutions higher than VGA 640×480 came along and video RAM prices dropped to make displaying 256 colors at 800×600 and above affordable, then boards from companies like Orchid (at one time a division of Western Digital) and Targa could display 16, 24 and 32 bit color, the time of ANSI graphics, 16 color bitmap and 320×240 256 color MCGA games on the PC was pretty much gone – even though a 25 Mhz 486 with a 32 bit Orchid board on VESA Local Bus (a precursor to AGP) could take around 30 seconds just to display a 800×600 32bit image. (I know because I had just such a system back then.)

  3. Ah yes, the “Good Old Days”… I remember the best program I was able to find to do this kind of work was called “TheDraw”… and AcidDraw. I kind of miss those BBS days… before the Internet.

    1. Old fart stories here…

      In the early 80’s I bought a computer with a CGA video adapter and a 20 meg hard drive. People at work thought that was pretty nuts because all my software was only about 3 meg and who needs color, let alone 16 colors? Obvious overkill n that purchase.

      The CGA cards had a light pen port that people ignored. I found it and started to make my own light pens and write software that allowed you to draw on the screen. The pen was used to pick colors and then you could make “art”. I thought the light pen was the future of human/machine interface, but five years latter this clumsy device called a “mouse” came along. Also, most EGA cards didn’t support a light pen. Light pens faded into the past. I hated those mouse devices and it took quite a while for me to accept them, until graphical interfaces came along.

      Raw ASCII art was often used by nerds as a .sig at the end of messages (email). If you used ANSI control extentions (VT100 screen control characters) then you had to hope the person viewing the message had a VT100 or higher terminal. The ANSI control characters allowed you to add animation to the message. I had a cool on that was a Christmas tree with twinkling lights and a choo-choo train going around it.

      If you were an upper-class dude at the company or the university, you had a TEK4014 vector graphics terminal that could also do VT100. This allowed you to send true vector graphics to people. This was important in science and engineering. I’ve always been surprised the it has taken so long for vector graphics to be integrated into the web browser display. It is so valuable and effienciet to techno/sci people .

      This was posted from a 56 KBuad modem from a land line.

      My core memory is overheating and I must sign off now…


    2. I can’t count the number of hours I spent using TheDraw, mostly to create screen art for my BBS (which ran on an IBM XT with Hercules monochrome)

      At one point I wrote my own ASCII editor in QuickBASIC, just because I could.

      I don’t miss those days.

  4. I remember when I was learning Fortran IV, the admin had a deck of punch cards that printed an, at the time, awesome nude named Edie or Edith(?) from the teletypewriter.

    Those were the days!

    1. Edie Sedgwick? An original “It Girl”, which I think means she’s famous despite not actually *doing* anything, her fame being tangentially related to her attractiveness, but mostly rooted in lazy journalism.

      She’s the only famous Edie from the punch-card age I can think of. Dunno if she ever did n00dz though.

  5. I got into the dial-up BBS scene around 1990, and finally started running my own in the mid-90s – right before the Internet completely took over. I remember making awesome ANSI logon/logoff screens by using various utilities to convert and touch up video game scenes and characters from screenshots captured from early console emulators. Fun times.

    1. I created my own BBS still using the home phone, between 10pm and 6am, hours were open. I had internet access from the local university and a rather large SCSI HDD. I would download from *mostly DOOM and DOOM ][ stuff, and then host the downloads on the BBS. *Ice Zmodem” for the win.

      It wasn’t until TCP trumpet and WinSock came around that I could stop downloading from the University with kermit, and then the internet killed the BBS. :(

      1. Ah, Trumpet Winsock, the original and possibly only implementation of the Sockets protocol for Windows 3.1. The demo version floating through the post in a million ISP setup disks. The decent thing would be for ISPs to negotiate licenses for their users at a bulk rate, but I’m not aware of any that did.

        In the UK, Demon Internet had their own thing, Turnpike, which I think had the TCP/IP – PPP drivers included. That, and Trumpet, probably connected 90% of the early 90s users to the Internet, to disappear immediately when Windoze 95 came with Dialup Networking. I hope the chaps at Trumpet made some good money from it, they deserved to. And what else would we have used otherwise?

        You could call Facebook an evolution of the BBS , with it’s games, user profiles, and chat. Admittedly it’s evolution along the lines of teaching primordial slime to type. I don’t think the Internet’s gained anything that I want, since the n0rps got hold of it.

  6. ANSI art is still useful. I still occasionally fire up TheDraw in DosBox and create full-color illustrated custom login messages for all of my Linux boxes. This mildly amuses some of the users, though at this point most of them were still in diapers back when I was creating ANSIs for WWIV BBSs 20 years ago.

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