The Jacquard loom ties together two of Manchester’s most important historic industries: textile manufacturing and computing. Read on to find out how it both revolutionised the production of patterned cloth and also inspired the development of early computing.
A revolutionary invention
When Joseph-Marie Jacquard, a French weaver and merchant, patented his invention in 1804, he revolutionised how patterned cloth could be woven. His Jacquard machine, which built on earlier developments by inventor Jacques de Vaucanson, made it possible for complex and detailed patterns to be manufactured by unskilled workers in a fraction of the time it took a master weaver and his assistant working manually.
The spread of Jacquard’s invention caused the cost of fashionable, highly sought-after patterned cloth to plummet. It could now be mass produced, becoming affordable to a wide market of consumers, not only the wealthiest in society.
The Jacquard loom in Manchester
By the 1820s, Jacquard technology had spread to Britain, where it greatly boosted Lancashire’s burgeoning textiles industry, allowing Manchester and its surrounding cotton towns to produce the woven patterned textiles people craved.
From 7,000 to 8,000 Jacquard looms are now in this country… The best English designs are those in cotton goods… The Jacquard machinery is applicable to everything which is figured or flowered… every species of tissue (woven fabric) to which a loom can be applied, even to straw hats, horsehair or wire…
Manchester Guardian (14 December 1836)
Inspiring early computing
Jacquard’s invention transformed patterned cloth production, but it also represented a revolution in human-machine interaction in its use of binary code—either punched hole or no punched hole—to instruct a machine (the loom) to carry out an automated process (weaving). The Jacquard loom is often considered a predecessor to modern computing because its interchangeable punch cards inspired the design of early computers. When British mathematician Charles Babbage released his plans for the Analytical Engine, widely considered the first modern computer design, fellow mathematician Ada Lovelace famously observed:
« The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves »
Ada Lovelace, mathematician (1843)
With his Analytical Engine, Babbage envisaged a machine that could receive instructions from punch cards to carry out mathematical calculations. His idea was that the punch cards would feed numbers, and instructions about what to do with those numbers, into the machine.
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