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Sparking Innovation: The Jacquard Loom

December 23, 2015 Innovation Impact

The loom’s punch cards later inspired English mathematician Charles Babbage to revolutionize the process of creating mathematical tables.
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How did a weaving loom lead to one of the greatest technology innovations of the 21st century?

The Jacquard Loom was a significant breakthrough in the history of textile production, an essential manufacturing tool of the Industrial Revolution. Joseph Marie Jacquard, a silk weaver from Lyon, France, first demonstrated his improved drawloom at an industrial exposition in Paris in 1801. By 1803, a spark of genius inspired him to make another improvement to this loom—the “Jacquard attachment.”

This mechanism, mounted above the loom, uses a continuous chain of punch cards to control the lifting of individual threads. Each card on the loom corresponds to a hook, which can be raised or stopped depending on whether the hole is punched out or solid. The cards are mounted on a rotating cylinder and pressed against pins, which detect the presence of holes. The loom’s hooks are raised or lowered by a harness, which guides the thread to form a pattern in the fabric.

The Jacquard Loom automated the work of weavers. Changing the punch cards changed the pattern, giving the weaver endless ways to “program” this device and to create intricate tapestries, damasks, brocades and other fabrics. Traditional silk weavers could produce approximately one inch of complex fabric in a day. The skilled Jacquard Loom operator, however, could create approximately two feet of fabric in the same amount of time.

Jacquard’s invention did not go unrecognized. In 1806, the city of Lyon purchased his patent as public property, and the loom began to spread. It was introduced in England in 1820 and arrived in the United States in 1823. It was used primarily in the workshops of professional weavers or small factories.

Coverlet Woven by Samuel Meily, Sr., 1851 THF150946

Inspiring Computation

The Jacquard Loom’s punch cards later inspired English mathematician and engineer Charles Babbage to rethink the process of creating mathematical tables. In Babbage’s time, these tables were essential in the fields of navigation, science and engineering. But they were calculated by hand, leaving much room for human error in both the calculation and transcription. The tables were sometimes printed with these errors, problematic for a supply ship trying to calculate its course or an engineer trying to build a piece of equipment.

Babbage wanted to find a way to automate computation using machines to improve accuracy in this process. In 1837, he designed a device that is recognized as one of the first mechanical computers—the Analytical Engine. Babbage was inspired by the Jacquard Loom’s ability to process complex data using punch cards and applied this same model to the Analytical Engine. In turn, Ada Lovelace, a mathematician and friend of Babbage, was inspired to publish an English translation of an article written by Luigi Menabrea describing the invention in detail. Her accompanying notes are lengthier than the original article and describe a complicated algorithm to be carried out by the engine. This is often considered to be “the first computer program,” and by extension, Lovelace became the first computer programmer. While Babbage’s engine was not built to completion during his lifetime, the prototypes and designs were inspirational enough to cement his legacy as one of the fathers of modern computing.

Jacquard's Loom at The Henry Ford

A Jacquard Loom can be found inside the Greenfield Village Weaving Shop, where a continuous loop of 622 punched cards is used to produce pictorial textile designs. The loom was built by former textile director and curator Sidney Holloway at The Henry Ford in 1934. It was restored to operation in 2008.

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