Friday, 7 July 2017

The Jacquard Loom in the History of Computing

Joseph Marie Jacquard, a French inventor from a weaving family, invented the Jacquard loom which kickstarted the automation of the weaving industry. The Jacquard loom used programmable cards and went on to influence Charles Babbages work so the loom is considered an important step towards modern computing.

Jacquard was born on July 7th 1752 and worked on his loom in the early 1800s.

This portrait of Jacquard was actually woven on one of his looms. The amount of detail that could be achieved was a key part of its success.


Before the Jacquard Loom

Before Jacquard invented his much improved loom, weaving was a complex and error-prone process. Fashionable people wanted complex designs that took days to create with a weaver working with a 'drawboy', a child who would lift bunches threads to get the right pattern. It was very hard work and mistakes were expensive. 

What is a Jacquard Loom?

A Jacquard loom is an automated weaving loom which can create intricate patterns from a series of punched cards which encode which thread should be used where. Jacquard invented his loom in 1804.

This video from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London shows how the process works from creating designs on square paper through to how the holes in the cards control which threads are visible in a pattern:



This LEGO Weav3r project shows the concept. It uses a program instead of punched cards (and has a companion project to scan in designs made in LEGO!)


Like many inventors, Jacquard built on the invention of others. He didn't invent punched cards to program intricate patterns and he didn't come up with the idea of getting a machine to automatically follow them. What he did do was improve the ideas that others had come up with and make the Jacquard loom work well enough for it to take off.

Jacquard's Woven Portrait

To show off his invention Jacquard had portraits of himself woven. These portraits needed 24,000 cards to encode the design. Source

The portrait is a piece of pixel art with the design captured in rows of dots on the cards to encode which thread would be visible at each location in the picture.

Charles Babbage had one of Jacquard's woven portraits and delighted in getting his guests to try and guess what it was.

The detail in the portrait is amazing and could only be achieved with the advances in the loom that Jacquard achieved. It needed automation, lots of threads and a reliable mechanism to be able to produce pieces like this.


Punched Cards

Punched cards are cards that have holes in them to store information. A mechanical device can behave differently depending on whether a hole is present at a location or not. In the case of the Jacquard loom the holes determine which groups of threads will be visible at a particular point in a design. 

In 1725, Frenchman Basile Bouchon came up with the idea of 'programming' a weaving loom using holes in paper strips. Bouchon's inspiration came from mechanical musical instruments that used raised pegs to play music. His colleague Jean-Baptiste Falcon improved the technique to use sturdier card that could be joined together in a loop. 

Charles Babbage used punched cards in his analytical engine designs in 1836. 

Herman Hollerith took the idea of punched cards and used them to store data input in his 1889 automated tabulating machine. Hollerith's work led to punched cards being used to program early digital computers. 

Punched cards played an important role in computing history and were regularly used to program computers until the 1960s. There are still lots of programmers around who remember using punched cards. Technology has moved on quickly in recent years!

Automation

The first looms that used punched tapes and cards weren't automated. In 1745 Jacques de Vaucanson, an inventor and maker of mechanical automata, made the first automated loom punch card reading mechanism which moved a punched paper tape on to the next position after each row. The loom itself was still manually operated. Vaucanson's invention was impressive but not yet practical for widespread use. 

After lots of refinements Jacquard managed to create a reliable loom that put us on the path to automation and programmable machines.

Lots of people were worried about the future of their jobs as more tasks became automated.

A similar thing is happening today as we're making robots that can perform more and more tasks and developing artificial intelligence services that can automate work that requires thinking.

The automation of manufacturing lead to different kinds of jobs and eventually to better working conditions. Will we get it right this time?










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