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Jacquard’s Web

January 23rd, 2009 ~ No Comments

Book Review by John Weller
James Essinger Oxford University Press ISBN 0192805770

Arguably the first programmable machine was a loom built by the son of a French silk worker in Lyons. Lyons was the capital of the silk industry in France and produced much fine fabric; amongst their products were fine tapestries showing detailed pictures of landscapes and portraits. These were very laborious to produce and hence expensive. Jacquard determined to design and manufacture a better loom that would produce as good a quality product but with much less effort. The result of his efforts was the Jacquard loom controlled by punched cards; cards that could be re-used and transferred from one loom to another – in other words, the first program.

Jacquard’s work was greatly appreciated by an English mathematician, Charles Babbage, who was working on a project of his own to automate repetitive tasks. In Babbage’s case it was the production of mathematical tables, a far cry from woven portraits but with the underlying similarity of predictable, repetitive actions. Babbage was sufficiently impressed by Jacquard that he visited Lyons and bought a woven portrait of Jacquard produced on a Jacquard loom at a cost in today’s money of £2500.

This book explores the chain of links that led from Jacquard, through Babbage, to the first programmer – Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace. It goes on to Herman Hollerith who produced the punch card machine for data analysis. Hollerith found that the US census was taking so long to analyse that the next census was being made before the data from the previous one was available so developed the machine initially to analyse the census data. It was later further developed to extraordinary levels and was a mainstay of business until it was superseded by the next link in the chain, the digital computer. The final links in the chain are Howard Aiken who was largely responsible for the Harvard Mk 1 and subsequently Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.

The main focus of the book is the early days with Jacquard having 70 pages out of a total of 280; Babbage gets 45 pages and Berners-Lee a short paragraph. This is probably quite reasonable as there are many books currently in print about the birth of the web but very few about Jacquard and how his loom works.

Overall the book is a fascinating run through the very early history of IT with much background detail of the individuals who had such an impact on our lives today. It is obviously well researched leading to a very readable book without too much technical detail in the main body; there is an appendix with the technical detail of how a Jacquard loom works. Highly recommended for anyone who has an interest in the origins of computing.

John Weller is a Fellow of the Institution of Analysts and Programmers and a long established IAP Council member. You can contact John through the Institution, and purchase books at substantial discounts through the IAP Bookstore

Jacquard’s Web is available through Amazon in Paberback and Hardback

Tags: Books