Timeline Chapter 1: Ten Top Moments

Spanning tens of thousands of years, Chapter 1 of our Generative Art Timeline surveys the advancements in art, mathematics, science and computing history that led to the modern era of generative art. This article distills the chapter into ten critical moments.
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Generative Art Timeline - Pre-1850 - Pre-Modern Era

Timeline Chapter 1: Ten Top Moments

The Generative Art Timeline the team and I have been developing at Le Random covers the 70,000+ year history of generative artistic practice. It includes a detailed chronicling of the relevant advancements in art, technology and mathematics history. When complete, the digital document will include hundreds of moments and ten chapters. Yet, it will never be complete. The document is meant to continue expanding into the future both horizontally (with each coming year: 2024, 2025, etc.) and vertically (with additional content as it is brought to our attention).

Chapter 1 of our story is the longest in breadth, covering the period before 1850, which we call the "Pre-Modern Era." Spanning tens of thousands of years, Chapter 1 surveys the advancements in art, mathematics, science and computing history that led to the modern era of generative art.

The entire
Generative Art Timeline is large. This article and subsequent editions for future chapters offer a more streamlined, condensed telling of our story of generative art's history. True diehards will still want to read the full version of Chapter 1.

This is not just a copy-paste from the
original Timeline. Each of the ten moments was updated with additional information and context.

Finally, directly below is a cleaned-up and edited version of our Chapter 1 Twitter Space, covering the same ten moments, with special guest,
Marius Watz.

1. Blombos Cave Drawing (70,000 BCE)

Blombos Cave Drawing (70,000 BCE)

The first known art created by humans is generative. Ochre cross-hatching found at Blombos Cave in South Africa is believed to be the earliest known art created by a human anywhere. ”They qualify as generative because the placement of individual marks has not been decided by the artisan, but dictated by a manually executed symmetry‐based algorithm,” according to Philip Galanter.1

Casey Reas has spoken of how logical, systems thinking is "really essential for this medium." What the Blombos cave art and many other similar, prehistoric tiling patterns reveal is the ancient, innate and unmistakably human origins of systems thinking in art.

Blombos Cave's symmetry-based tiling system may not universally be considered autonomous and thus generative. As I argue, the critical question to ask is: "Does the artist relinquish control to an external system at some point?" While a simple tiling system is deployed here, more complex versions will appear later in our story with Islamic tile art.

2. I Ching Introduces Binary Concept (1,000 BCE)

I Ching Introduces Binary Concept (1,000 BCE)

First written between 1,000 to 750 BCE, I Ching, also known as the Book of Changes, is an ancient Chinese divination text. It introduced the binary system, consisting of a series of two symbols, the broken (yin) and solid (yang) lines, representing darkness and light respectively. This binary system has impacted mathematics, philosophy and, thousands of years later, modern technology, standing as the bedrock of our computation-based times.

The formative figure and avid reader of Chinese texts, Gottfried Leibniz, who is also discussed later in this chapter, would go on to document the binary system in his 1703 paper, “Explanation of Binary Arithmetic.” In the paper, Leibniz draws heavily from I Ching, citing it several times and employing its identifiable hexagrams.

I Ching has thus been critical to the development of binary systems with both ancient and modern influences. Additionally, several prominent generative artists have been inspired by the I Ching throughout the previous decades, including John Cage, Manfred Mohr and Marius Watz.

3. Euclid’s Elements (300 BCE)

Euclid’s Elements (300 BCE)

Considered one of the most influential and long-used textbooks of all time, Elements remains a key work in geometry’s logical development. Euclid's ancient Greek text consists of thirteen books that demonstrate how to make logical proofs to ascertain certainty and investigate the unknown. The books also include some of the earliest known algorithms. The concepts Elements introduced would be critical in the development of algorithms by Islamic mathematicians and throughout the European Middle Ages. The text would again prove vital in early modern science, influencing Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo among countless others. Its legacy throughout the millennia is unquestioned.

Like the seminal advancements in binary systems from I Ching, Elements played a critical role in moving the field of logic forward. Binary systems and logic would prove foundational to modern attempts to design computing machines, including by Gottfried Leibniz later in this chapter.

4. Al-Khwārizmī’s Writes Concerning the Hindu Art of Reckoning (820 CE)

Al-Khwārizmī’s Writes Concerning the Hindu Art of Reckoning (820 CE)‍

The Persian Al-Khwārizmī's Concerning the Hindu Art of Reckoning introduced zero, the decimal system and Hindu numerals to the Islamic and European world from India. Preserved only in its Latin translation, the text was likely based on Arabic translations of the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta's work. Al-Khwārizmī’s name, Algoritmi in Latin, later led to the term “algorithm" when the text was introduced to European readers in the thirteenth century.

It was also during this time of the Abbasid Caliphate, considered a "golden age," that Islamic tiling and other abstract geometric forms flourished.

5. Albrecht Dürer Creates Engraving Melencolia I (1515)

Albrecht Dürer Creates Engraving Melencolia I (1515)

Packed with meaning and symbols, Melencolia I features a depiction of Dürer's solid (the eight-faced stone to the left) whose points form the Dürer graph. The solid is a geometric shape discovered by Dürer and used in his art. It was instrumental to the development of perspective and proportion in art history as well as these mathematical concepts in geometry. In the top right we see the "magic square" where the numbers in each row, column, diagonal and quadrant all add up to 34.

This work was highly influential to Vera Molnár. She developed systematic variations on the “magic square” from this piece. Molnár first encountered Dürer at the age of 14 or 15 and would say this about her experience to Hans Ulrich Obrist: “That was something very important to happen upon Dürer’s magic square in Melancholia. I was very young and was looking for a foundation, something that I could hold onto in making non-figurative painting." Here, Molnár reveals how Melencolia led her to abandon figurative work for good.

Continuing, Molnár explains how her experience with Dürer led her to focus on the abstract, beginning a life-long love affair with the square:

"I was looking for a rule, something hidden, a secret, and felt that I’d found it in the magic squares system.... The magic square was like that. I liked Dürer’s work very much. As I was courageous, hard-working and methodical, I said to myself that I would try with other magic squares."

6. Gottfried Leibniz Pioneers Computational Thinking (1666)

Gottfried Leibniz Pioneers Computational Thinking (1666)

Leibniz's Dissertatio de arte combinatoria (”On the Combinatorial Art” 1666) was one of several cornerstone papers he would write throughout his life on concepts such as symbols, binary systems and formal logic. His voluminous writing and tinkering with machines would prove hugely influential to the development of computing.

”On the Combinatorial Art” is actually an extension of Leibniz's doctoral dissertation. In it, he proposed a system of using symbols and rules to combine ideas and discover new knowledge. His system for arranging and manipulating concepts to find answers sounds remarkably similar to what we call algorithms.

In addition to this seminal text, Leibniz decades later published the paper, “Explanation of Binary Arithmetic," in which he is credited for inventing the binary system. Leibniz also made important contributions to the field of formal logic before inventing several mechanical computational devices. His ability to synthesize knowledge throughout the ages to contribute to modern computing make him a singular figure in our story.

7. Johann Philip Kirnberger’s Musical Dice game (1757)

Johann Philip Kirnberger’s Musical Dice game (1757)

Known at the time as Musikalisches Würfelspiel ("musical dice game"), this method first developed by Johann Philip Kirnberger was a monumental event in the history of art and chance. The game was a musical composition technique in which notes were generated randomly using rolls of dice. Serving as one of the earliest examples of aleatoric (chance) music, it stands as one of the earliest examples generally of art generated randomly by chance. Many subsequent, famous composers would experiment with musikalisches würfelspiel, including Bach and Mozart, who is still the most known practitioner.

Musikalisches würfelspiel also begin the tradition of generative music developing prior to graphics, which continued into the twentieth century with Max Mathews at Bell Labs developing MUSIC I nearly a decade before computer graphics.

8. Joseph-Marie Jacquard Invents the Jacquard Loom (1804)

Joseph-Marie Jacquard Invents the Jacquard Loom (1804)

The Jacquard loom used punch cards to control the weaving of patterns in fabric. It introduced the notion of a stored program in the form of punch cards, which would later result in generative weaving and modern computing. Charles Babbage would go on to utilize Jacquard’s method of punch card programming as one computing's earliest pioneers. “Computers did not pave the way for generative art; generative art helped to pave the way for computers,” according to Phil Galanter.2

Punch card programming would continue developing for the next century and a half before culminating in the use of mainframe computers and early languages such as FORTRAN.

Additionally, textile design has continued to influence both fine art as well as generative art to this day. Examples include the Bauhaus weaving workshop's Anni Albers and Gunta Stölzl, the quilters of Gees Bend, Anna Lucia, Travess and Andreas Rau.

9. Nicéphore Niépce Produces First Permanent Photograph (1826)

Nicéphore Niépce Produces First Permanent Photograph (1826)

Photography's impact on modern art is well established but its impact on digital and computer art more specifically is less examined yet central to this story. According to Herbert W. Franke, "The most significant stage on the path to the mechanization of the fine arts has been photography.” Further, art critic Frank Popper includes photography as the first of seven influences on the development of digital art. Digital generative artists such as Casey Reas, Margot Lovejoy and Terry Gips have all stressed the importance of photography to the development of computer art as well.

Nicéphore Niépce produced the first permanent photograph using a camera obscura and a pewter plate coated with bitumen. This breakthrough served as the basis for the continuation of developments in photography to this day. The invention of photography stands as a paradigm shift in art history. The camera’s ability to capture representations of the visible world would lead to painters losing interest in strict realism and spur the gradual abstraction of modern art. Photography, in addition to becoming its own art form, would also lead to cinema and video art, as art expanded from a handmade practice to include capture practices.

10. Ada Lovelace Becomes First Computer Programmer (1843)

Ada Lovelace Becomes First Computer Programmer (1843)

Computer programming is born, as Ada Lovelace published an algorithm in 1843 for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, making her the first computer programmer. Her work demonstrated the potential for computers to perform complex tasks, foreshadowing the development of modern programming languages. She even envisioned the computer’s ability to create programmed art. Inspired by the notion of combining science and art, Lovelace recognized the computer's ability to extend beyond calculating numbers. She understood its potential to create complex images and music by translating basic rules into symbolic logic, carrying on the traditions of Euclid, Al-Khwārizmī and Leibniz. Lovelace foresaw a future where computers could be programmed to create beautiful and imaginative works of art, envisioning a creative partnership between humans and machines. This concept anticipated the field of computer-generated art by over a century. Her prescient ideas have inspired generations of computer programmers and artists.

Lovelace would inspire future women pioneers in the field of programming such as Grace Hopper who introduced the use of natural language in programming during WWII.


1 Galanter, Philip. In Paul, Christiane. A Companion to Digital Art, 159. John Wiley & Sons Inc, 2019.
2 Galanter, Philip. In Paul, Christiane. A Companion to Digital Art, 151. John Wiley & Sons Inc, 2019.


Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) is Le Random's Editor-in-Chief.

Special thanks to Conrad House for attention to the images, fact checking and audio editing.