Hal Swerissen

The whirring of a modern computer might seem a world away from the rhythmic clatter of a loom. Yet, the seemingly disparate worlds of textile production and digital technology share a surprising ancestor: the Jacquard loom. Invented in the early 1800s, this weaving machine, named after its inventor Joseph Marie Jacquard, revolutionized not just fabric production but also laid important conceptual groundwork for the computers we use today.

The steam powered mechanical loom had been invented earlier in 1785 by Edmund Cartwright. But its limited automation only made it suitable for only simple weaving. It could not weave complex patterns like those for brocade. With the spreading wealth of the industrial revolution came demands for richer and more complex fabrics.

The Jacquard loom provided the solution. It pioneered the use of a program of punched cards to control mechanical looms to dramatically improve the complexity of patterns that could be woven automatically. Jacquard’s innovation used cards laced with holes that determined controlled rods that raised warp threads (vertical threads) during weaving. Rods that lined up with holes raised threads. If there was no hole in the card, the rod was left lowered. The pattern for the weaving determined where the holes were located on the cards. This system essentially encoded the weaving pattern as a series of binary choices.

Charles Babbage, a 19th-century inventor often credited with designing the first computer (the Analytical Engine), was heavily influenced by the Jacquard loom’s punched card system. He and Ada Lovelace, his collaborator also credited as the first computer programmer, envisioned using similar cards to input data and instructions into his Analytical Engine, effectively creating a programmable machine. While Babbage’s machine was never fully built, the ideas behind it, including the use of programming cards, paved the way for future computing giants like Herman Hollerith and his punched card tabulating machines, which were instrumental in the early days of data processing.

The Jacquard loom represents a significant step towards the concept of programmability, a defining characteristic of modern computers. With punched cards, weavers could pre-program the loom to create complex patterns. This ability to define a set of instructions beforehand and have the machine execute them automatically is a fundamental principle in computing. While the Jacquard loom’s “programming” was limited to textile designs, it was the forerunner for the development of more sophisticated programming languages that are the lifeblood of modern computers.

The Jacquard loom’s influence extends beyond the technical aspects of computing. It serves as a reminder of the connection between technological innovation and social change. The ability to mass-produce intricate fabrics at a lower cost through automated weaving made complex woven fabric available to a much wider audience. But it also led to wide-spread disruption to the weaving industry and its workforce. At the time there was little concern about a ‘just transition’ for workers who were made redundant. Weaving became the flash-point for worker campaigns to protect their jobs. A contemporary concern that continues as automation continues to gain pace across an ever increasing span of industries and jobs.