Analog ASCII

Anyone who spent time on a computer in the early days of their existence is probably familiar with ASCII art, a form of illustration in which the components are nothing more than text characters. You might depict an arrow, for instance, like this:

>>—–>

Or you could do something more complex, even animated, like this depiction of a punk band in action :

But the idea of building up an image from individual letters and other characters is much older than the computer. Here are three examples from our collections.

Christian Gessner’s Die so nöthig als nützliche Buchdruckerkunst und Schriftgiessery (1740-1745) is a manual of printing, copiously illustrated with copperplate engravings (including an impressive depiction of a printing shop) and other images, like this fold-out depiction of cathedral spires (with apologies for the poor scan):

If you look closely, you’ll notice that in this case the method of illustration is not engraving; instead the image is composed (literally) entirely of typographical ornaments. That means that every section of every line is probably the imprint of a single piece of type.

This Spanish broadside, printed in Valencia, dates from slightly later in the century but it follows the same principle. The most clever touch, in my opinion, is the use of two “O”s for windows in the upper area of the tower.

The broadside above is one of a set of four similar typographically-experimental broadsides printed in Valencia in the 1760s and 1770s in the Updike Collection. Here’s another example, this time from the press of Benito Monfort,  a highly respected Valencian printer*:

I think my favorite detail here is the representation of the type on the press bed—backward and upside-down—and it’s corresponding impression—right-side-up and legible**—on the paper on the tympan.

You can find more images of products of the two Valencian presses at the excellent Biblioteca Valenciana Digital site.


*  José Enrique Serrano y Morales’s history of Valencian printing, Reseña histórica en forma de diccionario de las imprentas que han existido en Valencia… (1899), p. 332 ff. (available in Special Collections or through Google Books).

** Technically, the type on the press bed should have just been backward, not upside down.

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8 thoughts on “Analog ASCII

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