Before Pixels

Before Pixels

Long before JPEGs, typewriting and knitting were making pictures from dots

Type the symbols colon, dash, and right-parenthesis, and voìla, you get a smiley face. (Nowadays, most people leave out the dash).

The smiley also has other variations: reverse the parentheses for a sad face, or change the colon to a semicolon to wink. You can get creative with square brackets, curly braces, and hey, how about a little ‘o’ for the mouth? The possibilities are endless.

Actually, they may be even more endless than you’d imagine. Emoticons are one way to make pictures out of punctuation, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg.

And here’s the iceberg:

/      
~ ~ ~ ~ /  ~ ~ ~
~ ~ ~ ~ / .  ~ ~ ~
~  ~ _/ .     ~ ~
~ ~  /.    ^   ~
~ __*   .       | ~
/    . .     . .
~___.      ______)
~ ~ ~_____/~ ~ ~ ~
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Well, that’s one iceberg, at any rate. There are many other, more intricate, pieces than this quick punctuation-illustration that I made up. In fact, this kind of drawing also has a name: ASCII art.


While waiting for the homepage of The Guardian to load, I pressed Ctrl+U to “View Page Source”. It’s something I do.

And this is what I saw:

I think it’s a neat trick: put out an ad for web developers inside the source code of a page, a place where only a web developer would look. You may be more interested in another fact, however: that one can use punctuation not just for pictures, but for drawing bigger alphabets as well.


ASCII stands for “American Standard for Computer Information Interchange”, and it’s the way computers store (or used to store) text. ASCII defines special byte sequences for each of the alphabets, as well as commas, plus-signs, and other punctuation.

Pictures made out of these symbols are, of course, ASCII art.

Nowadays, ASCII is being replaced by UTF-8, or “Universal Text Format (8-bit edition)”, which has letters and punctuation not just for English, but for some 140-odd scripts from all around the world. Today’s text-artists have even more variety to choose from, such as when the Kannada letter ‘ttha’ becomes a look of disapproval: ಠ_ಠ


ASCII art isn’t so common these days, because people have videos and GIFs instead. But if you browse through some old-fashioned online forum (or, should I say, vintage), then you might come across ASCII frogs and penguins and hello-kitties pasted here and there.

If you are a programmer, you’ve likely seen ASCII art in source-code files too. Source-code, that is, computer programs, are written purely in text. It’s like writing in Windows Notepad: you can only have letters and punctuation, each character taking the same amount of space, and no italics or headings or fancy formatting allowed.

Here in the code, ASCII art is the light-hearted touch in the comments of code; the light playfulness that, along with sarcastic notes and horrible pun-filled function names, makes programming that much more fun.

Modern code editors have “syntax highlighting”: applying mild styling or colour-coding to certain key command words and structures. Nevertheless, this is still one place where text rules supreme, where making drawings out of text makes sense because there’s no other way to go about it.

ASCII art comes from a time when all computers were worlds of text. Although, its ancestors run much deeper.


When the IBM Selectric typewriter was released in 1961, it included a feature that was considered revolutionary: the backspace key.

Typewriters work like this: when you press a key, a metal stamp of the letter slams, through an ink-filled ribbon, onto the waiting paper. And there the letter stays, marked permanently: you can’t erase it.

The IBM Selectric was no different. When you pressed backspace and typed in the correct letter, it would merely get typed on top of the old text, creating a messy hodgepodge of overlapping alphabet.

The genius of the Selectric was that it remembered what you typed. It stored it on magnetic tape, so, when you were done, you could insert a fresh sheet of paper, press “go”, and it would automatically type a mistake-free final copy for you.

The messy hodgepodge that the Selectric so carefully avoided, however, was one of the flagship features of typewriter art.


Julius Nelson was a typing instructor at Windber High School in the USA. His job was to teach people to type better and faster. But then, he realised he could use typewriters for more than just typing.

Typewriter art, as Nelson and others before him knew it, was just like ASCII art — and then some. You can do things with typewriters that you can’t do on digital text.

You can type letters over one another, to create new shapes and symbols to work with. You can pull out a page and replace it in a different way: sideways, upside-down, even diagonally. you can go back and type letter over letter over letter, creating thick dark shades to contrast the remaining lightness; you can smudge it ever so slightly with your fingers to add the finishing touch.

Julius Nelson sponsored the “Artistic Typing Competition” for over a decade, and in 1939 published a book called “Artyping”, which told you the tips and techniques of how to go about it.

Artyping is not an easy thing to do. You can’t draw your picture in wide sweeping strokes, as you would with a brush or pen. You can only go linearly and gradually, one line at a time, so you have to know what your plan is in advance.

Unless, of course, someone else has already done the planning for you.


Pat Ashforth and Steve Plummer have been dubbed the “mathekniticians”. They take mathematical concepts like Hilbert Curves and the Fibonacci sequence, and knit them into sweaters and cushions that you can understand at a glance.

Take Pythagoras’ Theorem, which states that a square on the hypotenuse is as big as the other-side squares put together. It’s a well-known rule. But with couple’s knitted cushion, you can see it visually — or even count the stitches yourself to make certain.

Experienced knitters can plan out their patterns and then work to make them as they go along. But if you’re just starting out, it’s common to follow instructions from a book. You learn the basic moves, such as ‘knit’ and ‘purl’, and then follow instructions that go something like this

CO 18 sts.
Row 1: *K2, P2; rep from * across, end K2.
Row 2: *P2, K2; rep from * across, end P2.

This means: cast on eighteen stitches. Knit twice, purl twice, and repeat till you end the last two stitches with knits. For the second row, purl twice, knit twice, and continue till you purl at the end. And so on. Blindly follow the instructions on the page, and you’ll end up with a beautiful mitten, or Penrose tile, or whatever you chose to make.


Bob Neil was a hypnotherapist. His job was to hypnotise people in order to cure their illnesses. One day in 1960, he got hypnotised himself, though in a different sense of the world.

The thing that captivated him was something he read about a woman in Spain making pictures on a typewriter. He decided to try it himself, and eventually ended up publishing two books: step-by-step instructions on making pictures, with ink instead of wool. Follow the instructions on which keys to press, and you’ll end up with a cat, or a realistic portrait of Queen Elizabeth, or whatever it is you chose to make.

Typewriter instructions would go something like this:

1)  42sp 1. 2: 1.
1a) 41sp 1. 3@ 1sp 1: 1.
2)  42sp 4&

That means, press the space-bar forty-two times, followed by a dot, two colons, and another dot. Then go back and, on top of what you just wrote, put forty-one spaces, a dot, three ‘@’s, a space, a colon, and a dot. Continue to Line 2, where you write forty-two spaces and four ‘&’s. And so on.


Typewriter art and knitting have a lot in common. They both make pictures of discrete elements: typewriters make pictures out of many separate letters; knitting creates it from different stitches.

Long before computer pixels made pictures out of dots, typewriter artists were doing something similar on paper. Mathematician Philip Davis (no relation of the actor) wondered if there’s a connection there: could it have been typewriter art that sparked the idea of making pics from pixels?

In some ways, computer images are quite like knitting and typewriter instructions too. Twelve red pixels, they say, and one green, and two black. And so on. There are compression techniques, like saying “here is a pattern, now repeat it there and there”, but the basic idea is still of putting dot after dot.

The only difference is, you don’t have to read and follow instructions, because the computer does it for you instead.


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