The Original ASCII Art Was Just This Guy and His Typewriter

In 1922 Hobart Reese enjoyed a brief period of fame for his portraits of famous people. What made his work so special? Reese created his art using nothing but a typewriter.

Fans of computer art are no doubt familiar with ASCII art: representational pieces created using nothing but the characters on a computer keyboard. But as we often learn from the history of technology, there's really nothing new under the sun.

The Original ASCII Art Was Just This Guy and His Typewriter

Popular tech magazines of the early 1920s published articles about Reese, amazed at his skill in such an unlikely medium for portraiture.

The March 1922 issue of Science and Invention ran some of Reese's art (seen above) under the headline "Had Your Portrait Typewritten?" Readers saw Reese's handiwork with portraits of then-President Warren G. Harding, famed actress of the silent movie era Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, another silent film legend.

Reese—who lived in Washington, D.C.—apparently had a particular fondness for portraits of politicians. The photograph at the top of this post comes from the Library of Congress and shows Reese at his typewriter, hard at work on a portrait of Abe Lincoln.

The Original ASCII Art Was Just This Guy and His Typewriter

Science and Invention magazine encouraged its readers to use a magnifying glass to decipher which characters were used for different parts of each portrait. Sadly, the facsimile technology of the early 1920s that was used to copy images into magazines wasn't so great. Thus, the relatively low level of detail makes it somewhat hard to distinguish which characters are used, even with a magnifying glass.

The Original ASCII Art Was Just This Guy and His Typewriter

As popular as he was (however briefly) for his typewriter skills, Reese didn't invent typewriter art. One of the earliest surviving pieces of typewriter art is a piece by Flora Stacey in 1898. The work appeared in the Phonetic Journal depicting a butterfly with flowers, though many others almost certainly created such work before Stacey.

The Original ASCII Art Was Just This Guy and His Typewriter

It's not clear what became of Reese after he gained recognition as a typewriter artist. However, there are plenty of references to his work in newspapers prior to 1922. As a boy, for instance, he entered countless drawing contests for kids in the Washington Post.

Few people remember Reese today. But the next time you see a clever ASCII portrait floating around on the internet, pour a few characters on the curb for this tech art pioneer.


Image: Portrait of Hobart Reese in 1922 from the Library of Congress; Portraits of President Harding, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks scanned from the March 1922 issue of Science and Invention magazine