How Jacquard's Invention Revolutionized Fabrics, Interior Design, and Technology
Who Was Joseph-Marie Jacquard?
Joseph-Marie (Charles) Jacquard was born in Lyons, France, in 1752, to a family of weavers in what was then the silk-weaving capital of the world. (The family’s surname was Charles, but they were known by the family nickname Jacquard.) The fifth of nine children born to Jean Charles and his wife, Antoinette Rive, Joseph and a younger sister, Clémence, were the only two to reach adulthood.
Joseph did not go to school, although when he was thirteen-years-old, his educated brother-in-law taught him to read. Instead, as was the usual practice among the Lyon weavers, young Joseph worked 10 to 12 hours a day as a draw-boy in a silk workshop. The draw-boy would sit inside the loom and rearrange the warp threads as instructed by the weaver so the desired pattern would be created when the shuttle pulled the woof thread through to create the next row(s).
In 1778, Joseph, who had become a master weaver and silk merchant, married Claudine Boichon. The following year their only son, Jean-Marie, was born.
A non-mechanized draw loom
By the late 18th century, simple automated looms were used to speed up the tedious process of manual weaving, but these machines could only produce very plain fabrics in a single color. Mass production of some textiles, however, drove the price of all fabrics much lower.
More intricate designs were still laboriously woven by hand-operated looms with the assistance of a draw-boy. The process was slow and the profits had become marginal at best. Jacquard set out to remedy that situation. Continuing his job in a textile factory by day, Jacquard spent his spare time working on building an invention that would rival the best work of the most skilled weavers.
Jacquard put his project aside while he and his son fought on the side of the Republicans during the French Revolution. He took part in several major battles and saw his only son shot and killed as he fought beside him. Joseph was devastated. When the war ended, he was hospitalized for some time. Then he worked at a variety of menial jobs and, finally, in 1798, he returned to Lyons and found the strength to return to work on his invention, completing his first model in time to exhibit it at the 1801 Paris Industrial Exposition. He was awarded a bronze medal for technical achievement for his device. Jacquard patented his invention in 1804.
Jacquard's machine could weave fabrics 24 times faster than the draw loom pictured above. Its introduction into the silk mills of Lyons created an uproar. Weavers were afraid of losing their jobs and there were fierce riots in the streets. Many of Jacquard's mechanized looms were destroyed and he was personally threatened and attacked.
One suspects that the government takeover of Jacquard's patent, as described in the following section, was at least partially prompted by the violence and seen as a means to protect him and his work. This development, combined with the advantages of the machines, which could weave 48 rows of fabric in the time taken to weave just two by hand, squelched the protests. By 1812, there were 11,000 Jacquard looms in French factories and many more were starting to be used in other countries.
Success and Recognition
On April 12, 1805, the Emperor and his wife, Josephine, visited Jacquard's workshop in Lyons. Napoleon had been interested in Science all of his life and quickly saw the potential in Jacquard's creation. The fact that this advance in technology easily put France's textile industry ahead of rival Great Britain's was an added bonus.
Three days later, Napoleon decreed that the Jacquard "loom" was the property of France and gave the patent to the city of Lyons. In return, Jacquard received an annual pension equivalent to about $95,000 USD and a royalty of 50 francs (about $1,500 USD) for every loom sold within six years.
Napoleon liked Joseph-Marie from the moment they met and did everything he could personally do to promote his machine. The Emperor Bonaparte even insisted that all of his ceremonial clothes be woven by the silk weavers of Lyons.
Jacquard enjoyed much recognition and success, although it must have been tinged with sadness as he had endured much. Nevertheless, the accolades continued.
In 1819, he was awarded the French government's coveted Cross of the Legion of Honor for his 1804 invention, as well as a gold medal.
In the 1820s, he retired to Oullins, a suburb of Lyons, where he lived a prosperous rural life. His wife, Claudine died in 1825 and Joseph died at home in Oullins, peacefully in his sleep, on August 7th, 1834.
Six years later, the French government erected a statue of Jacquard in Lyons. It can still be seen at the center of the Place de la Croix-Rousse.
"Etching" of Jacquard
The portrait shown here is based on a portrait of Jacquard painted by Claude Bonnefond. Thought by many, including the Duke of Wellington, to be an etching, it was actually silk fabric woven using Jacquard's invention. Only 14 by 20 inches, it contains 24,000 rows of weaving.
As described by Charles Babbage in1864: The portrait of Jacquard was, in fact, a sheet of woven silk, framed and glazed, but looking so perfectly like an engraving, that it has been mistaken for such by two members of the Royal Academy.
Fabrics Woven on a Jacquard Loom
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What is Jacquard Fabric?
The Restoration Fabrics and Trims Historic, Vintage & Reproduction Home Decorating Fabrics Glossary defines Jacquard as
An elaborate woven or knitted pattern made on a Jacquard loom. Invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard in France in 1801, the loom uses an attachment which provides versatility in designs and permits individual control of each of the warp yarns. Thus, fabrics of almost any type or complexity can be made. Brocade and damask are two types of jacquard woven fabrics.
An Intricate Fabric Woven on a Contemporary Jacquard Loom
Jacquard fabrics have elaborately woven patterns that are generally raised to varying degrees above the (back)ground.
This type of textile can be woven from virtually any natural or synthetic fiber, from cotton and wool to the latest microfibers.
Jacquards can be woven with one or multiple threads and one or multiple colors to create any design from simple textures or motifs to the most intricate trompe l'oeil (fool the eye) fabric.
What, Exactly, Was Jacquard's Invention and Why Was it so Revolutionary?
Although Jacquard's invention is referred to as Jacquard's Loom, he did not invent a loom per se. What he did was devise an attachment for the loom that used a system of punch cards, hooks, and needles to do the job of arranging the threads that he did as a draw boy - and did it faster than a person could. The attachment not only made the weaving process faster, but the cards could be stored and reused.
Jacquard was not the first to use the concept of punched holes or to create an automated loom. In 1725, Bouchon had invented a loom controlled with perforated paper tape. Falcon made some improvements to Bouchon’s machine a few years later, but it was not until 1740 that Vaucanson introduced the first completely automated loom.
Jacquard's invention combined and improved upon the two earlier ideas - the punched holes of Bouchon and Falcon and the cylinder mechanism used by Vaucanson. His modifications and additions resulted in a vast improvement. Thus, today, the "Jaquard Loom" still carries his name.
Jacquard used strong, heavy pasteboard cards and punched a series of rectangular holes in them. The holes were arranged to guide the rods holding the threads as he used to do as a draw-boy.
Each card had the same number of rows and columns but the position of the holes varied. Only the hooks and needles of the loom that aligned with a hole could pass through, arranging the threads in of each row according to the pattern. The cards were strung together sequentially in long strips to automatically create highly complex designs.
In essence, the cards stored information in an algorithm that could be "read" (and re-read) by the loom. Jacquard's invention was not only a major step in the Industrial Revolution but also in the Technological Revolution that followed.
Jacquard Loom in Action
The Machine That Changed the World
Although they are now obsolete, punch cards were used extensively through the 18th and early 19th centuries to operate looms, mechanical music boxes, player pianos, and other musical instruments. Then, in 1832, Charles Babbage used Jacquard’s punch-card system to produce a calculator that was the forerunner of computer programming.
The Countess of Lovelace, (and Byron's daughter) Augusta Ada King, wrote of Babbage's machine:
The Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.
Early digital computers used the cards for programming and data storage.
If you'd like to know more about the direct thread that runs from Jacquard to present day technology, this is the book to read. From textiles to tabulators, weaving to the world-wide web, Essinger introduces the players and plays that created the technological age of the 21st century.
Computer History: The Jacquard Connection
The thread from Jacquard to modern technology and the invention of the computer began to lengthen shortly after his death. Charles Babbage applied Jacquard's ideas to a second cogwheel-based machine he devised in order to do math calculations. (His first attempt, the "Difference Engine" did not borrow from Jacquard and fell short of his expectations in abilities and versatility.)
Although he never actually built his "Analytical Engine," Babbage used Jacquard's punch card "technology" to "program" the cogwheels to carry out specific functions. In his autobiography, Babbage wrote about Jacquard's work and explicitly created the bridge between weaving technology and information technology. Once Babbage conceptualized his compuational machine as a special type of Jacquard loom, he did more than solve the problems of control and repetition he was struggling with in his life-long work -- he did, in effect, "see the future," by conceiving of a machine that could actually "think."
Babbage often shares his title as the "Father of Computing" with Herman Hollerith. Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1860, Hollerith attended the City of the College of New York and the Columbia School of Mines, graduating in 1879, as the country prepared for the 1880 census. Hollerith was hired to collect and analyze data for the Census Bureau.
The task faced by the Census Bureau in aggregating and interpreting the vast amount of numbers was overwhelming. It took 7 years to tabulate the 1880 results and it was almost time for the next census. The government wanted even more data collected in 1890. How could they possibly process so much data?
A hint to the answer lies in the fact that Hollerith's brother-in-law, Albert Meyer, was in the silk business in New York. The two men had discussed and observed Jacquard looms extensively as Meyer was trying to persuade Herman to join him in the business. There are also records indicating that Hollerith discussed the loom with others at the Census Bureau.
Then, in 1882, Hollerith was offered a post as a mechanical engineering instructor at MIT. The 22-year-old accepted the position at a time when the field was growing rapidly. Despite the demands of his job, Hollerith found time to experiment with creating a machine to record the information the government wanted collected for the census.
In 1884, Hollerith applied for a patent that used Jacquard's methods, except the punched holes corresponded to a person's age, ethnicity, sex, and birthplace instead of a weaving pattern. Hollerith's advance came from incorporating one of the newest technologies of the time - electricity - into his model.
To carry out the tedious task of hole punching with speed and accuracy, Hollerith developed a machine based on a pantograph, a device used to copy a diagram or drawing on a larger scale.
His plan was to use one card per person. When the card was pressed against a grid containing blunt needles, those that could get through the holes would conduct electricity, completing a circuit which would open a box that advanced a dial one increment.
Over the next few years, Hollerith improved his machine and by 1907, the tabulators were able to use electromagnetic printing mechanisms to print a document with the totals of each operation. Speed, accuracy and capacity were being continually improved. Hollerith's problem was that the census required such machines only once every ten years, so he headed to Europe to try to sell his machines. Eventually, several governments, including Tsarist Russia, rented his machines, giving him financial security for the first time in his life.
In 1896, Hollerith incorporated his business as the Tabulating Machine Company which, through mergers and acquisitions, became the International Business Machines Corporation Inc. in 1924, with Thomas Watson at the helm.
Written by one of his colleagues at Harvard, where Aiken taught after WWII.
Insightful, affectionate and actually a good read. Recommended for Computer and history buffs.
Howard Aiken's work provides the final link in this summary of Jacquard's technological lineage.
As a young engineer, Aiken was introduced to Ted Brown, who taught at Harvard and was a member of the advisory board that Watson had set up at Columbia University. Through Brown, Aiken met Watson, who introduced him to IBM’s senior engineer, a man named James Wares Bryce. (This was obviously in the days long before LinkedIn.)
Interestingly, Aiken's proposal to IBM includes a survey of the history of calculating devices, relying heavily on what was known of Babbage's work at that time and then Hollerith's. In effect, he traced the links from Jacquard's machine to the modern computer, for the proposal Aiken delivered to Bryce in 1937, was a sophisticated plan for the world's first computer.
Punch cards did not become obsolete until the mid-1980s as they were replaced with magnetic tape or "floppy" disks. Although IBM stopped manufacturing their punch cards in 1984, punch cards are still in use in the printing industry and in some areas, for voting machines. (Remember the 2000 election "chad" controversy?).
Today, even Jacquard looms are run by computers. Punch cards are no longer part of their infrastructure but those computers still use binary code. The images we see displayed in standard windows are still 80 columns wide because they were originally designed to display a punch card's full width of 80 columns. Digital images are represented by pixels. The word pixels was coined as a shortened version of picture element. Enlarge a digital image of a word and you can see the pixelated structure that resembles the appearance of the designs or picture elements woven into cloth on a Jaquard loom.
Weaving can be considered, in many ways, with each overlapping warp and woof unit equivalent to one pixel, the first digital process. The webs woven by the silkweavers of Lyon on Jacquard's loom still echo, albeit metaphorically, in the world of computing and the world wide web.
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- Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, 1864.
- James Essinger, Jacquard's Web: How a hand loom led to the birth of the information age, Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Historic Vintage Reproduction Fabrics Glossary by Yours Truly.
- I. F. Menabrea, Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage, Esq. translated by Augusta Ada King, in Richard Taylor, editor, Scientific Memoirs, 1843.
- Jonathan Keats, The Mechanical Loom, Scientific American, Sept. 2009.
- Alice Marcoux, Jacquard Textiles. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1982.
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