Jacquard, Joseph Marie

Joseph Marie Jacquard was born on July 7, 1752 in Lyon, France. His parents had a small weaving business and, as was done often at that time, put the young Jacquard from the tender age of ten to work in their business. His job was that of a draw-boy, working on the drawloom. The space behind the drawloom was so small that only small children could be employed to do that task. Working in this dusty and cramped place was a very unpleasant job and tediously repetitive. Hence it is not surprising that, when both of his parents later died and left him with their weaving business consisting of the premises and two looms, he set himself to improve the drawloom, the machine used for weaving patterns, by trying to automate the work of the draw-boy.

Lyon at that time was the centre of silk weaving and Jacques de Vaucanson, who had become the inspector of silk factories in Lyon in 1741 and who had already become famous for his inventions of automatic machines, had built a weaving machine in 1745 with automated pattern control. The Vaucanson machine was however rejected by the Lyon weavers’ guild and in frustration he donated his loom to the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Paris. Vaucanson’s innovation was based on a system of holes punched in stiff pasteboard cards and it eliminated the work of the draw-boy. This was exactly what Jacquard was looking for, although he was unable to trace the machine at that stage.

Jacquard worked for many years on his dream of automating the pattern-weaving loom, often to the detriment of his own business. Fortunately his wife was a good hat maker and her work brought in just enough to keep the family going. Jacquard’s solution to automate the loom was a device on top of the treadle-operated loom to “process” the punched cards and by using an “endless” loop of connected perforated cards he managed to achieve his dream.

The punched cards would pass over a set of needles, which pressed against the card. Whenever a hole in the card came up, the needle would detect this and activate the threading mechanism. Each hole in the card corresponded to a hook, which could be either in the up or the down position. The hook raised or lowered the thread and the sequence of the raised or lowered threads is what constituted the pattern. By changing the pattern of the holes in the cards the pattern in the textile produced on the loom could be changed.

The first “programmable” loom had been constructed and it allowed more flexibility and complexity in the patterns than before. As one punched card controlled one row of the design woven, one simply could replace one or more cards to get a different pattern.

In 1801 Jacquard showed his loom at the Industrial Exposition in Paris where he was awarded a bronze medal. He was called to Paris by Napoleon in 1804 that gave him a job at the local Museum of Arts and Crafts to maintain its machines and models. There he discovered the remains of the disassembled Vaucanson loom he had been looking for. He managed to reconstruct the original machine and then used the new knowledge to combine the best from both his own design and the Vaucanson loom to improve his Jacquard loom. He never patented his loom, but when in 1806 his perfected loom was bought by the government and declared public property, he was given a royalty on all looms sold and Napoleon granted him a lifelong pension of 3,000 francs annually.

However, the local weaving industry was less enthusiastic about the new invention. Many weavers used their children as draw-boys, thereby securing some income for them as well, and they feared the possible unemployment caused by the Jacquard invention. In 1806 the master of the weaver’s guild in Lyon commanded the public destruction of the new loom as it was perceived to pose a threat to jobs in the weaving trade. Although Jacquard initially designed his machine for the local silk industry, the technique was soon applied to the weaving of wool, cotton and linen.  Despite the initial resistance, the new looms gained widespread use throughout France and by 1812, there were already 11,000 Jacquard looms in operation. When Jacquard died in Oullins on August 7, 1834, there were 30,000 of his looms in use, just in Lyon alone, and his looms had spread all over the world.

The weavers had come to realise that their intricate planning for new patterns could now be stored permanently in punched cards and be used over and over again by anyone.

Jacquard’s invention has had a major impact on the textile trade and his technology has become the basis for the modern automated looms. Not only could textiles now be produced at a lower cost and with less amount of work involved, but also the actual designs could become more complex, more artistic and technically perfect.

The concept of the zigzag folded stream of connected punched cards is also used in the famous Dutch street-organ with its unmistaken sound. Today the holes in the cards control the music played in the streets of Amsterdam.

Jacquard’s loom marks an important step in the history of the development of the computer as he succeeded in perfecting the technique of using punched cards to such an extent that they could be used for program control and the storing of data.

Charles Babbage has later adopted Jacquard’s concept of the perforated cards when in ca 1830 he used the punched cards as input/output medium for his newly designed Analytical Engine. In 1890 Herman Hollerith applied the same principle in the U.S. to automate the national census and designed a tabulating machine to “process” the punched cards containing the census data. Punched cards have been used right through the 20th century in tabulators, the early digital computers and the large mainframes of the sixties and seventies.

Even as recent as 2000, punched cards made international headlines, when the U.S. Presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore was decided by only a few hundred punched card holes. Confusion reigned as the holes, wholly or partially punched, were manually counted and recounted and the term “chad” (the little piece of cardboard that is punched out of the card) became part of America’s vocabulary.

© Wobbe Vegter