There's a great article over at The Atlantic, tracing the roots of ASCII art, all the way back to the earliest uses of the typewriter. An aside: In the 1970s, my brother and I were taken along to a big exhibition of up-and-coming technologies for the home, and had our images captured by a low-res black-and-white video camera. I remember we had to sit still for ten seconds for the image to be scanned, and then we watched in awe as an ASCII rendition of the image emerged slowly from a tractor-fed dot matrix printer. That image hung on the wall of my parents' living room for years. I wonder if it's still around somewhere?
The history of ASCII art goes deeper, and much of it is told only in Geocities blog postings, abandoned websites, Google Books, and scattered PDFs across the web.
This post traces a fascinating and mostly lost strand of that history: The way thousands and thousands of people made typewriter art, from amateurs to avant gardists.
What they created is, in some cases, strikingly similar to the ASCII art of the BBS days, but how they thought about what they were doing depended on the times in which they worked.