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Feature - The Loom that Wove the Future - James Essinger

What do silk weaving and computers have in common? A lot more than you might think...

Did you know that the computer on your desktop, in your palm-top, in your mobile phone or in any one of numerous domestic appliances in your home is the descendent of a loom invented in 1804?

Nor did I, until, back in 1999, I became interested in the origins of the computer and started researching my book Jacquard's Web. I discovered that the great English computer pioneer Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871) – who had designed a never-completed cogwheel computer – had borrowed many of his ideas from the French weaver, Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752 – 1834).

Investigating the origins of something very familiar can sometimes lead you down a singularly extraordinary and unfamiliar path. Once I’d discovered the extent of the intellectual debt Babbage owed to Jacquard, there seemed little else to do but to visit the old weaving district of Jacquard’s hometown of Lyons to see what traces of Jacquard’s legacy remain there today.

In the early nineteenth century, the Lyons suburb of Croix Rousse was the world’s silk-weaving capital. Lyons had been a bustling centre of silk-making for many centuries, ever since France’s medieval kings decided they wanted to create an indigenous silk-weaving industry to supply them with the wonderfully luxurious fabrics they so much adored. The problem was that the loom used to weave the most precious and prized fabric of all – silk brocade, which had stunning pictures woven into it – was a singularly old-fashioned and lamentably slow device known as the draw-loom. The drawloom weaver was helped by an assistant who stood on top of the loom and laboriously lifted individual threads up and down to create the subtle and complex fabrics. He was rather like a puppeteer controlling a marionette’s strings.

All this changed with Jacquard’s brilliant invention, in 1804 of a revolutionary loom that made use of punched cards to control every single row of weaving of a patterned fabric. Jacquard’s loom operated an astonishing twenty-five times faster than the draw-loom. When you consider that a supersonic jet aircraft travels at about twenty-five times faster than a car, you get some idea of the leap in speed and productivity made possible by Jacquards loom. For his pains, Jacquard himself was awarded a pension by a delighted Napoleon, who was always a great enthusiast in matters of French progress in science and industry. Jacquard also received a royalty for every Jacquard loom brought into service.

But Jacquard’s principle of using punched cards to control his loom not only revolutionised weaving. It also wound up revolutionising the way we control information.

There are two lines of descent of Jacquard’s idea, and both contributed to the creation of the modern computer industry.

Firstly, in 1836, two years after Jacquard died, the English scientist and mathematician Charles Babbage – who was trying to build a cogwheel computer to solve the problem that so many mathematical calculations undertaken in his day were dangerously inaccurate – had the idea of using Jacquard’s punched-card principle to ‘program’ his computer. He didn’t use the word program; that only came into use about a century later; but certainly he invented the idea of programming a computer.

Even though Babbage died a disappointed man, his ideas continued to inspire computer pioneers in the twentieth century. Today, he is very justly regarded as the father of the computer.

The second line of intellectual descent that leads from the silk-weaving workshops of Lyons to the modern computer is found in the work of the brilliant American mathematician Herman Hollerith (1860 – 1929). Hollerith designed special machines towards the end of the nineteenth century that were used by American census-takers to process data. The American Census was becoming increasingly unwieldy as the American population shot up during the last few decades of the nineteenth century. Before Hollerith’s involvement, it was almost taking the entire ten years between the censuses to assimilate and process the data collected from the previous Census.

Hollerith solved this problem – and reduced the time taken to handle the Census information down to a perfectly manageable year or so – by creating a special machine he was eventually to call a ‘tabulator’. This was based very closely on the Jacquard loom, and in effect turned the information for every household and citizen into a series of holes in a punched card, with different holes standing for different types of information investigated by the Census.

In due course, these tabulators became extremely powerful and rapid machines that could process tens of thousands of cards in an hour. They were the machines sold by IBM – or International Business Machines, as it was originally known – when it was founded in 1924. The origins of IBM can be traced very directly to Croix Rousse in Lyons, and to the French silk-weaving industry of the early nineteenth century.

For the first thirty years or so of its history, IBM was the world’s leading manufacturer of tabulators, all of which worked using punched cards. IBM began to get involved in computer technology in the 1940s, but as late as 1960 the corporation was still making more revenue, worldwide, from tabulators than it was from computers. However, by the late 1960s, tabulators had been phased out. The age of the computer had arrived in earnest.

Yet computers still made use of Jacquard’s principle, being – like tabulators - programmed using punched cards which echoed Jacquard’s invention of the silk-weaving loom in 1804. Punched cards were in fact still used to program computers until the late 1980s, when they were finally replaced by electronic media – initially tape and later the familiar CDs that abound in software stores today.

Piecing together this true story of these remarkable links between the silk-weaving loom and the modern computer took me two years of research in five different countries. There is no doubt that it is reasonable to describe computers as simply a form of highly specialised loom. This fact was brilliantly foreshadowed back in 1843 by Charles Babbage’s close friend and confidante Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852). Ada was the mercurial, brilliand but rather eccentric daughter of the great Romantic poet Lord Byron. She was far-sighted enough to say, in reference to Babbage’s cogwheel computer the Analytical Engine, ‘We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves’. The italics are Ada’s. She liked emphasis.

How right Ada was. And how extraordinary it is that a silk-weaving loom can have given birth to the remarkable age of information technology in which we find ourselves today! Every time you use a computer – no matter what kind of computer – you are essentially weaving at the speed of light.

James Essinger's book, Jacquard's Web is published by Oxford University Press.

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Last update 05 June 2007