Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752–1834)

The Jacquard loom was an invention from the beginning of the nineteenth century that came to be known world-wide. By using punched cards to determine a textile pattern it was the first widely applied example of automation in weaving. Much later this idea of ‘programming’ was a foundation of computer science.

Joseph-Marie Jacquard was born in 1752 at Lyon in central France, which had been a centre of the silk trade since the Renaissance. His father was a master weaver. He had no elementary education and could not read until he was taught by his brother-in-law at the age of 13. His mother died when he was 10 and then his father when he was 20. He tried several occupations, including bookbinding, making type, making cutlery, bleaching straw for hats and burning lime. He married Claudine Bouichon in 1778 and her dowry saved him from bankruptcy.

Perhaps using his father’s equipment, Jacquard began to invent machinery for weaving. The inventions were not fully successful. However, when he showed one for automating pattern weaving in 1801 at the Exposition des produits de l'industrie française in Paris he was invited to join the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers. There he improved his invention by combining much earlier ideas developed by Basile Bouchon, Jean Baptiste Falcon and Jacques Vaucanson.

The Jacquard loom used many punched cards in a sequence to alternate the warp and weft in weaving and so create a pattern. The sequence of cards recorded a particular pattern and they could be changed to make a different one. This made hand-weaving much faster and more accurate.

In 1805 Napoleon declared Jacquard’s invention the property of the city of Lyon. In return Jacquard was given a pension for life and a royalty on every loom. Thousands were installed by silk weavers in the next few years. The technology was applied to other textiles and later to powered looms. The concept that the punched card dictated a binary alternative – ‘on’ or ‘off’ – influenced Charles Babbage in developing the idea of the programmable computer.