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Jacquard’s Punched Card: How a hand loom led to the birth of the information age

In Uncategorized on January 17, 2011 by Sukrit Tagged: , , ,

Origins

Travelling back to pre-revolutionary Lyons, France it would be a customary sight to see the city dominated by weaving studios- large rooms full of even larger looms operated by expert master weavers not much different from the sight opera conductor. For since roman times Lyons was famous for its fine quality of silk weaves – intricate and complicated patterns beautifully represented in fine knit silk. In the late seventeen hundreds Lyons suffered from a peculiar conundrum – It had more orders than its weavers could possibly deliver. A radical new invention was needed to cope with this demand. It was here that Jacquard came up with his design for a programmable loom thus bringing a paradigm shift in the way humans thought of as machines. Just as William Shakespeare might never have become a great poet and playwright without the wonderful simulation and energy of Renaissance London all around him, Jacquard would most likely never have blossomed as an inventor had he not lived in Lyons, the silk-weaving capital of the world.

The standard silk weaving loom of the day called the drawloom was a pitiable machine or rather not a machine at all. It only facilitated the manual weaving of patterns or images in fabric thus requiring expert weavers. At the maximum rate of two woven rows a minute, a mere inch of brocade fabric still required a full working day to complete, each warp thread requiring manual lifting and placement.  What was required was a method of ordering, with complete precision, the lifting of warp threads that formed the shed in a better way than having a draw-boy doing the whole thing by hand. Programming Cards was the answer.

The idea behind the Jacquard looms was a system of punch cards and hooks. The cards were rectangular with holes punched in them. The hooks and needles used in weaving were guided by these holes in the cardboard. When the hook came into the card one of two possibilities could occur; either the hook would go through the hole or remain stationary. In the first case the warp thread would be lifted thus creating a pattern. By controlling the relative placement of these holes, one can in principle control each warp thread of the fabric individually. This made the whole process of weaving infinitely flexible; any image could be embodied into a chain of punched cards and woven by the Jacquard loom. The astonishing truth is that the Jacquard loom enabled decorated fabric to be woven about twenty-four times more quickly than the drawloom. We can perhaps more readily appreciate the impact of the speed increase when we consider that, today, a supersonic jet aircraft flies at up to twenty-four times the average speed of a modern car. The increase in speed was as remarkable as that.

Though Jacquard loom resulted from the genius of an individual it was nonetheless a product of the social conditions prevailing in France. At the start of the nineteenth century, the chaos, butchery, continually gyrating politics and general fiasco of Revolutionary France were being meta-morphed into a coherent, ordered, disciplined new society that saw rational order as its god. It was a society that had a particular love for new types of machines and completely new inventions. This was to be expected; after all machines are the ultimate physical embodiment of reason.  It was lucky for Jacquard that Napoleon had been fascinated by the silk industry all his life. As a result, during Napoleon’s leadership great emphasis was placed on innovations in the weaving industry. Patrons were easy to find and so was the money needed for experimentation. Jacquards’ weaving background, encouragement given by the government combined with his genius provided the perfect ingredients for invention.

Diffusion

 

The success of this loom was evident from the beginning. Its effect on the French silk industry was immediate, enormous and extra-ordinary. The loom was acknowledged by Napoleon himself and Jacquard was awarded a handsome prize. This policy of providing grants to inventors and subsequently awarding them encouraged a whole generation of engineers to innovate and invent. Jacquard Loom was declared public property with a handsome royalty for Jacquard himself.

The rapid diffusion of the loom was the result of two things. Firstly, the Jacquard loom took away the difficulty and complexity from the weaving process, turning it into a rapid and easy process. The subsequent increase in efficiency resulted in its adoption by large majority of the weavers. The most important reason for its rapid development can be attributed to the efforts on the part of the government to reform silk industry in the country. The subsequent publicization of the technology, along with a small fee for its usage made way for its fast diffusion.

Leap of Faith

 

The story of Jacquard’s idea might easily have ended with the new kind of loom transforming the French silk industry and then the worlds’. But the potential of the Jacquard loom extended far beyond silk weaving. It formed the core of Babbage’s visionary Analytical Engine- the first ever computing machine recognizable as the modern computer.

One of the many problems Babbage faced in the development of his computing machines was that of finding a mechanical method for providing these machines with the numbers on which they were to operate. Babbage adopted the principle of using punched cards to transmit information to the machine – the same way Jacquard had done some 20 years ago.  Babbage’s interest in the Jacquard loom went beyond the relatively simple idea of using holes in the cards to represent numbers. Babbage conceived his greatest project and one that would consume his entire life without ever being built – The Analytical Engine, by drawing a perfect analogy with Jacquard’s loom. Babbage conceived that his analytical engine would be stocked with what he called “operation cards”; punched cards that would describe the algebraic operation to be performed. Other cards named variable cards would be use to provide the inputs. Babbage’s vision of the analytical engine provided humanity with the first form of a programmable computer, operation cards being the assembly language and variable cards the user language. It was an engine which would possess its own computing library, repeating the same calculation over and over once specified. The information age had dawned. To think it might not have for the inventiveness of a Lyon silk weaver !!

The conceptual link Babbage made between his own work and Jacquard’s is beyond doubt one of the greatest intellectual breakthroughs in the history of human thought. It is a leap of scientific imagination that is too easily taken for granted today, when computers and information technology are all around us, when we are so familiar with machines that are essentially special kinds of Jacquard looms built to weave information rather than fabric.

This is not to imply that computers would never have come about if Jacquard loom had never existed. It would be credulity indeed to imagine that a society as obsessed with information as the humans would not have devised a way of processing it. But they surely would have looked and worked very differently today. Also Textile engineers might not have the fun they have now at the expense of computer engineers

It is a lesson that Technology has never forgotten to teach the inventor. Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine was never made; not for the lack of available technologies but for the simple fact that it was just too far ahead of its time. A little more faith on the part of the British Government might have brought the information age a century ago. But it wasn’t till 1939 that Howard Akien came up with the first modern computer.

In an age where invention is all but forgotten, replaced by ‘organized’ institutionalized research, it pays to remind oneself of individual genius, capable of heralding paradigm shifts in the way we think. Jacquard’s loom was once such innovation. It forever changed the way humans viewed machines.

Sukrit

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