When Computers Learned to Draw

(as published in West Country Life- March 2018)

The early days of computing were very much about pushing the boundaries of what the new electronic binary machines could actually do. While much of that pioneering work took place during normal office hours and often involved very mundane administrative and mathematical tasks to service the needs of deep-pocketed institutions and big business, off the clock people remained just as inquisitive. At the time (with no social media or internet to keep you entertained) there were arguably only three fun things you could do with a computer: draw, make music or play games.

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While many people will probably attribute Computer Art with rather terrible pixelated drawings done on primitive art packages back in the 1980s and 90s, in reality the history of the medium stretches right back to the 1950s and the very birth of computers. At the time computers were first being created, there was a new wave of artists coming to prominence in society who were not just interested in the finished work of art, but also in the very act of creation as well.  To these constructivists the computer became an enticing tool to try to create art from. One of the very first artists to have a go was an Englishman called Desmond Paul Henry. As an individual he had always been fascinated with the inner workings of machines, and not long after WW2 he bought an old RAF bomb sighting computer from a local army surplus store. These contraptions were the size of a large suitcase and were covered in dials and levers to be used by the plane navigator to help work out the best moment to drop his bomb so it landed accurately on its target.  Working via an intricate network of cogs and wheels these bomb calculators were entirely analogue and are considered among the first practical ‘computers’ in the world.

By 1960 Henry had decided it was finally time to do something with his bomb computer and realised that by connecting his machine to a plotter, he could very carefully and slowly create images similar to a spirograph. Minutely adjusting the dials to send the attached pen in a different direction was a very laborious procedure, and his drawings would take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to complete. Because every time he turned a dial there was also the chance the line might move in an unintended direction, randomness was an active part of Henry’s finished drawings and allowed his images to have a sense of liveliness that later digital images often lacked.

Henry of course was not the only person at the time trying to use a computer to create art, but he was one of the few to manipulate analogue computers. Around the world there were a growing number of people seeing if they too could programme the new electronic machines to create digital art. Because early computers were giant megaliths that were usually off-limits to all but the initiated few, many of the first digital artists were actually not artists at all but curious or creative programmers. Sadly as much of the work was merely created to view on the computer’s own monitor, only those pieces that were printed or photographed have really survived. Among the most influential names are people such as the German Mathematician Frieder Nake or the German academic Georg Nees.

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On the whole much of the digital art produced in the 1960s was very geometric in form as the act of programming relied on very slowly inputting a long set of repetitive instructions into the computer for it to then replicate onto paper via a plotter. The dot-matrix printer was not to emerge until the mid 1970s and the laser printer till the 90s. As the 1960s progressed there also emerged a new group of highly conceptual artists who began to create working 3D sculptures based around the computer. These guys such as George Pask, Bruce Lacey and Edward Ihnatowitz would create some highly influential works and installations that would go beyond using computers as mere tools for drawing, to also question the fundamental way humans were responding to these new electronic machines. Many of their ideas would be used by a later generation of scientists and engineers interested in the cultural, moral and design implications of Artificial Intelligence.

In 1968 the ICA in London held a seminal exhibition on computer art called Cybernetic Serendipity which for several months brought together the most prominent names in the field under one roof. Although smaller exhibitions had taken place elsewhere, this was the largest and most thorough to date. For most of the 60,000 members of the public who visited, it was probably also the first time they had ever seen this new style of art.

image from Dazzle Draw art disk


It was not until the later 1970s that computer art, as most of us know it, really emerged. The invention of the digital light pen allowed the user to move forms around on the screen and dedicated art software was being created by the end of the decade. This was a big step forwards as you no longer needed a Phd in computer programming to create art, and even major names such as Andy Warhol were to experiment with producing pictures of their own via a computer. But the computer art of the late 1970s and 80s was a very different thing to its predecessor. No longer was art being created to test the boundaries of the machine, it was now about seeing how well the user could replicate traditional fine art via a digital format. As the programs improved, so too did the ability of computer generated images (CGI).

Personally, I have always been more inspired by the achievements of the early pioneering days rather than the days of art software. Perhaps this is because as a child of the 80s I recall the terrible examples I was made to do in the name of art and creativity, and perhaps also because the earlier works really were a happy union between both artist and programmer. But whichever style you prefer, one thing is for certain, the computer has fundamentally changed forever the way we both create and enjoy art today.

Photo attribution: children at computer by US Department of Education ; Desmond Paul Henry by Historictech ; Aztec-style picture by Parker Knight; Interior Scene by Blake Patterson