Ascii art examples


The roots of ASCII art

ASCII stands for American Standard Code for Information Interchange. Computers use a number like '01100001' to denote the character 'a', and they use e.g. '00100101' to denote the percent sign '%'. It is best if all computers interpret the same number as the same character, and this is basically the case today, because nearly all computers adhere to this ASCII standard, loosely speaking. The standard basically creates a mapping from 8-bit sequences (sequences of 8 elements each of which is either '0' or '1'; such a sequence is also called a byte) to signs or characters such as 'a' or '%'.

It should be noted that this makes the ASCII standard rather anglocentric. It does not claim otherwise however, and it is quite understandable if the history of computing is taken into account. A new standard called Unicode now exists which uses a mapping from the set of 32-bit sequences to encode (nearly?) all character sets in use in the world. There are different ways of encoding Unicode characters, but one of them is indeed such that each character is represented by a sequence of 32 bits ('0' or '1' tokens). These 32 bits would in theory enable the encoding of more than 4 billion characters, but Unicode is content with a number slightly exceeding one million. If you visit the aforerefenced site, you can learn all about the finer distinctions between glyphs, characters, character encodings, combining characters, ligatures, ideographs, and whatnot. After that, you may appreciate the difficulties in making computers, computer displays, and document processors throughout the world cooperate :)

The above explains to some extent the term ASCII-art; There are other aspects that deserve mentioning as well. In former days (and also today - in some settings), computer screens used to supply limited functionality. A screen typically consisted of fixed rows and columns, and a character could only be displayed in one such cell. This meant that the display of each character had the same width; 'iiiiiiiiii' and 'mmmmmmmmmm' had the same width, not like that, but like this (using a font in which each character has the same width):


(briefly, a font is a set of characters bundled with descriptions of how they are displayed). If the 'i' and 'm' words on the lines above are not equally long, then your browser settings need to be modified (look for preferences, fonts, and fixed-width options).

Come to think of it, the situation was the same for typewriters (never really used one). It is clearly easier to design a fixed-width typewriter than a variable-width one. I would expect though that the niche of typographically committed people was large enough for a variable-width typewriter to have come into existence (will check this).

Update. Check out these fabulous pages dedicated to all things typewriter. The images of typewriters of lore are a feast for the eye, and there is much information to be savoured. Among other things there is a list of especially rare and beautiful typewriters . One of these is the substantial and elegant Maskelyne, which uses proportional spacing, that is, a variable-width typewriter.

Apparently, in typography variable-width typesetting is also refered to as proportional spacing, as opposed to using a fixed pitch face (or typeface). One source of information is found here with the masters of typesetting in the digital age, Adobe. These are also the creators of the page description language PostScript, on which I spent a significant amount of keystrokes in the PostScript fragment.

Today, if characters are displayed such that each character has the same width, it is said that a fixed-width font is used. A well-known fixed-width font is Courier. The term typewriter font is a synonym for fixed-width font.

The same cellular lay-out of computer screens (all over the world) implied that text on computer screens generally looked the same everywhere. Moreover, the early dot matrix printers had this same cellular approach to printing, and text would come out of the printer just as it looked on screen (with regard to the positioning of the letters).

The upshot of it all was that people had a common medium in which they could create, transmit, view, and even print images, long before image formats (and the hardware to support them) such as gif and jpeg came into existence. For this they used the cellular grids provided by screens and printers as canvas, and they used as paint the characters they would ordinarily type to construct commands, programs, or messages. The cellularity is also important because it allows one to easily move and copy parts of a picture across the page (the grid looks the same everywhere), making the design of ascii art easier. This is impossible to accomplish if the density of the grid varies everywhere, as it would with a variable-width font.

These simple means have, over the years, generated an amazing diversity of ASCII pictures, from humorous to grand, from abstract to baroque, inspired by and responding to influences from diverse sources such as 'mainstream art', cartoons and animations, the worlds of movie and television et cetera. The ASCII-art community is active as ever and is continually creating new art. I do not take part in this, but I very much enjoy the fruits of their labour.

Joan Stark has a very extensive account of the history of ASCII art , including typewriter art at the end of the 19th century and RTTY (Radio TeleType) art - tracing the origins of ASCII art to much earlier roots than I did here.


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