Retrotechtacular: ASCII Art In The 19th Century

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.

snoopy-calendarEarly 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.

nixonNot 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.

Modern Art

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−◦

had600There 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.

We’ve covered the more colorful ANSI art in the past. If you want something with a little more hardware, you might find this typewriter amazing.

43 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: ASCII Art In The 19th Century

        1. If you look at the “treasurer” ad, it’s clear how they did it: they took a block of “B” and carved it away where they wanted white. So it is not strictly ASCII art. The “president” ad is, because it uses full characters and white space to form an image.

          The answer to why they used small letters to make up larger ones (like modern day printer banners), is that typefaces cost money. Either the paper did not have the large font, or the advertiser did not want to pay to have a custom ad block made. So they went cheap, with “banner text”. Makes perfect sense — you get large letters but only get charged for small ones.

          I suspect the reason these disappeared so soon, is that the paper found the composing time for these ads was costing more than they were making from them, so they refused to accept them. Not sure what effect the Linotype machine would have had…it would seem that these ads would be easier to set by hand in a non-proportional font.

    1. I’d like to offer a correction: There were VERY FEW actual Baudot/Murray Teletype machines that had a ‘backspace’ capability. This often required several ‘Mod Kits” added to existing machines to provide this function.

      The ‘multiple strike’ effects seen in the Nixon image were accomplished by sending a
      Carriage Return and NOT a Line Feed, so that the ‘artist’ could space over to the appropriate area and ‘type over’ earlier characters to provide various contrasts and
      effects with different characters on top of one another.

      I own one of the Teletype Model 28 Printers that has some of the various ‘Mod Kits’ installed. One thing that it can do is to type, RIGHT to LEFT and the first time one sees this, it is most mind boggling, after years of seeing Model 28 machines typing left to right, then making a Carriage Return and Line Feed, etc. to start a new line of text.

      These machines were set up this way so that special forms could be used and an operator could easily ‘tab’ over and space backward for precise location of a few characters without the long, annoying sequence of spacing over maybe 60 spaces to hit a particular spot.

      Another possible feature was Reverse Line Feed. Again, used for special tabbing
      functions and special forms in use in early ‘remote’ systems for inventory control and parts ordering ‘after hours’.

      I saw one Model 28 Printer set up with both Reverse Print and Reverse Line Feed.
      The person who did this created a ‘news tape’ with letters omitted from words, and
      used the two functions to go back and ‘fill in the blanks’. Again, the first time one sees these two things in operation, it is a real novelty.

      These two things were accomplished with the Sequential Selector, better known as the “Stunt Box” on Model 28s. It took a series of non-printing, non-spacing characters
      to put the machine in Reverse Print and all text after that or spaces, if necessary, caused the carriage and typebox to move to the left as it printed. Another, shorter sequence of non-printing, non-spacing characters would restore normal printing and
      suppress or prevent Reverse Line Feed.

      Very few people who used these machines for years, were aware of these two functions. Most people who owned and used Model 28s would assume that these functions were impossible.

      Since the same basic technology and many operating parts were common to both Model 28 and Model 35 machines, I will guess but not assume, that these functions were also available with the Model 35s.

      – – – –

      I don’t monitor comments on here but would invite discussion of this with
      anyone who is interested. e-mail is or
      w8roi at wowway dot com

      Happy Hacking!

      Ralph – W8ROI

      1. Hey Ralph. I think we’ve worked ;-)

        The Selectric had backspace and so did the ASR-33 if I recall. But yeah, there are many ways to skin the cat. I had a program I wrote years ago for the TRS-80 that printed HP-41C barcodes. It did that–did a carriage return and then printed the same line 3 or 4 times because the contrast of a single swipe wasn’t enough.

          1. WD5GNR although I did a lot of RTTY in the early 80s as W5YD (club station call). When I’m on the air these days it is PSK31 (although I don’t use PSKGNR anymore).

        1. The only “backspace” the ASR-33 had was on the paper tape punch, which you could do corrections on by manually backspacing and overpunching with the rubout character.


    I have a copy (on paper, from the 70’s) of spock holding the enterprise. it was famous back then:

    this site has it! kind of cool to finally find it after so many years of looking.

    5x overprinted. first char is a space, then any plus-sign lines are overprint lines.

    I’ll have to find or write a processor now so that I can laserprint this poster and finally replace my aging green bar version (not kidding).

    1. If ANYONE has the original ASCII source code (text file or program listing_ fir that image, you would be AWESOME to post the link.

      3 hours later (searching), I am concluding that the source text is lost to time, but hopefully I am wrong.

        1. Thank you! Sure enough the Spock ASCII data is “spock” in file

          Audience beware it’s not immediately printable though…

          Problem details
          * The Spock image is broken up into 4 “pages”, each with a “header” you should not try print.

          But it’s not so simple to just strip out the header… then print the resulting “page” because there’s enough 18-50 real printer pages (TextEdit on macOS).
          ** … so I’m not sure if the absurd pages count is due to still-embedded “overstrike data” (even in the ASCII version), OR if I have overlooked some rows/columns attribute I should be setting to on my end.

          * Referenced in Ostracus’s link, also go to
          *… there the author references a C program this person used to convert the text+overstrike data into Adobe Illustrator… but he doesn’t link to that C code…
          ** (the C code would be pretty nice to have… but seems missing in action….)

          I hoped for an ASCII file I could print and display (even if the grayscale will never be correct; it’s fine).
          If I’m correct that the “ASCII” ZIP contains overstrike data, then it is not useful until a parser is found.

          It’s late. Either I missed something obvious, or a bit more digging is needed.
          I’ll keep poking around. Thanks again.

          1. OK I gave up on the original ASCII data

            Instead I found a scan of Spock “Return to Tomorrow” promo (original pic)
            Then cropped it to match the same field of view as on “Best of Creative Computing”
            Then used with 240 columns width
            This provides a passable approximation of the original.
            Some of that difference will come down to ASCII not having any color/overprint shading
            But some of it too is a change in aspect ratio (likely I’ll need a better fixed-width font than Courier New…)

            Good enough :-)

    1. I did that to plot really big graphs on a Juki 6100 (Diablo clone). You could move the print head 1/120 of an inch in one direction and (I think) 1/60″ on the x axis. So you could make really great graphs on continuous paper if you had the patience.

  2. ‘You can be discussing your radio for example…’

    Do HAMs ever discuss anything else? I was so thrilled to get my first shortwave/scanner. I built a huge loop antenna and settled in to listen to the world. Turns out the world talks about some boring stuff.
    “I know that you live in an amazing foreign place and there’s so much we could learn from each other. There are so many questions I’m dying to ask. First of all- what kind of antenna do you have?”

    1. I was really impressed with the relatively new digital mode that lets you stick photos in while you chat. I always imagined SSTV would be like that. “Oh my grandkid plays football. Here’s a picture of her.” Or whatever. However, SSTV is just people randomly exchanging photos. I did have a QSO on (I think) MFSK16 or Domino that was just like that. We talked for an hour about a bunch of random things and sent pictures to illustrate. Cars, kids, pets. The other ham was not a hacker/builder but I could imagine that it would be great fun to talk to another Hackaday-type guy like that.

  3. I liked the animated ASCII art that you could do on Vaxen and VT220 terminals. There used to be all kinds of cartoons floating around. Not even sure xterm and modern terminals can even handle it.

  4. i have an outdated version of VLC media player and it has an ASCII video output plug in!

    it looks sweet using almost no CPU (conversion plus display is less then other formats)

    buuut unfortunately VLC’s built-in ability to convert files between formats does not convert to (or from?) ASCII art! then again, there is not ASCII-art video file format… lol

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