Innovator of the loom that bears his name, Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752-1834) developed the first loom to weave designs into cloth. It was also recognized as the first machine to employ the punch-card technology, that would eventually program the computer of the mid-twentieth century.
In the 1700s, the European textile industry and specifically weaving, had not changed for hundreds of years. Using a loom, a weaver created woven fabrics by interlacing two sets of threads—taut lengthwise or "warp" threads that were crosswise, and "weft" or "filling" threads, at right angles. To create wide finished textiles, such as those used for window coverings, narrow lengths of fabric had to be woven by hand. Warp threads were then tautly stretched across the loom's frame, and raised and lowered by the loom's harness, to allow the weft threads to be woven between them. These intricately textured patterns, as well as multi-colored designs were time-consuming. Even so, with its generations of skilled weavers, by the mid-1800s, France was known around the world for the quality of its woven silks.
As ever-larger mechanized looms replaced skilled hand weavers in the 1790s, an explosion of woven goods appeared in European and American trade markets. These goods were inexpensive due to being mass-produced. However, these new, mechanized looms could not compete with the skilled manual labor required to create fabrics containing anything other than a plain or simple, woven pattern, such as a check or stripe.
It would be the invention of a Frenchman named Joseph Marie Jacquard that would spread mass production to these more complicated, and costly, textile designs, allowing even intricate patterns to be automatic ally woven into the cloth at much the same rate as a plain length of fabric could be generated.
Son of a Silk Weaver
Born July 7, 1752, in the southern French city of Lyon, Jacquard spent much of his life in the silk textile industry. Like his parents had before him, young Joseph went to work at a silk mill in Lyon. Along with many young boys of his generation and economic status, he grew up working 10-hour days within the factory. His first task as a young worker was to serve as a draw-boy.
Sitting on a perch above the heavy, massive loom and working quickly in advance of each passage of the flying shuttle carrying the weft thread, he would lift and re-position warp threads of various colors in different spots to create the pattern desired by the Master weaver who operated the loom. This tedious and sometimes dangerous task was given to children because their smaller fingers were more capable of setting the fine silk, wool, or cotton threads used.
The Industrial Revolution heralded what would be a long, gradual shift from a farming economy, to an industrial, trade-based economy. As fewer peasants made their living off the land, they migrated to the cities, where factories sought workers in response to foreign demands for their trade goods. Throughout France, the textile industry flourished.
Poverty Leads to Revolution
Unfortunately, this new economic growth and the growth of a new entrepreneurial class came at some expense. The citizens of Lyon, as well as other industrial cities, were overworked, yet still poor and lacking food. The "curse" of the Industrial Revolution was that the upper middle-class factory owners profited from the rise in foreign trade, while the lower classes suffered crowded living conditions and little pay.
By the time Jacquard had entered adulthood, France was entering one of the most tumultuous periods of its history: the French Revolution. And in Lyons, one of the country's most densely inhabited cities, this unrest— particularly that caused by the shift in political power from the wealthy nobility into the hands of the masses—was felt by all. Changes in the status quo were happening on all levels, including political, social, economic, and technological areas.
As early as 1775, French Controller-General Anne-Robert Turgot had encouraged free trade by inhibiting the restrictive guild system and subsidizing innovations in those industries he believed would one day make France an economic rival with her nemesis, Great Britain. Following the execution of Turgot's employer, King Louis XVI, and the rise of a revolutionary government, innovations among the French citizenry continued to be encouraged and the inventive spirit was rewarded with government grants. This trend would continue following the Revolution, as Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte himself encouraged technological advances in his every-growing republic.
This encouragement by the government drew the interest of young men such as Jacquard, who had grown up and advanced to the position of mill mechanic in Lyon. Reflecting on his childhood job, Jacquard set about to find an alternative to the position of draw-boy in the silk industry.
A concept developed by fellow Frenchman Jacques de Vaucanson in 1745, that utilized a perforated roll of paper to control the weaving process, served as Jacquard's starting point. Given one of Vaucanson's looms to restore, Jacquard set to work on correcting Vaucanson's unworkable design. Absorbed by his project for several years, Jacquard created an operative prototype of his loom by 1790.
By 1793, the Revolution was in full swing, forcing Jacquard to abandon his project; instead he joined the republican lower classes in mounting their historic attack on the French nobility. After fighting alongside his fellow citizens in defense of the new French republic, Jacquard resumed his work in 1801, shortly after Napoleon's rise to power. His improved draw-loom, displayed that same year at an industrial exhibition in the Louvre in Paris, earned Jacquard a bronze medal.
Three years later, in the fall of 1803, the inventor was again summoned to Paris, this time to demonstrate a second version of his original loom design. This version had attached to the top of its frame the "Jacquard mechanism" or "Jacquard attachment," which was a device connecting the wooden loom to an interchangeable continuous roll of connected punch cards. This remarkably innovative method of "programming" a machine allowed the Jacquard loom to produce tapestries, brocades, damasks, and other intricately woven silk fabrics far more quickly than had the manual technology of the past.
The Technology of Jacquard Weaving
The innovation underlying Jacquard's loom was the use of encoded punch cards to control the action of the weaving process, allowing any desired pattern to be reproduced automatically. The required design is encoded onto a series of connected pasteboard cards as a group of punched holes, each card containing a single line of holes representing a single row of weave. Each series of rectangular cards, when connected, creates a grid of rows and columns.
Jacquard's mechanism allowed each warp thread to operate independently, much like a player piano, where each note is sounded by a hole on a music roll as it passes over a certain opening. In the Jacquard mechanism, a specific combination of holes punched in a row through an individual card allowed selected sprung rods or needles to pass through the card and pick up certain threads. The connected cards create a continuous loop allowing for repeated patterns; when all the cards have been used, the sequence begins again.
Combining any number of connected cards in a loop, Jacquard's loom was able to weave patterns of great complexity, and these became popular for tablecloths and bed coverings. In addition to textile designs featuring smallscale, repeated patterns, Jacquard became known for intricate representational coverlets featuring a single large design, woven in a variety of colors.
One remarkable example of his craft that still exists is a black-and-white silk portrait of Jacquard himself, which was woven using a strip of ten thousand cards. Also important is the course his technology would take. Jacquard's open hole/closed hole system was the first use of the binary system that would be translated into a basic computer over a century later. In addition, computer operators would refer to his concept of sequencing individual cards in a specific order to create a specific pattern, as sequencing commands to create a "program."
Innovation Gave Rise to Computer
Jacquard's invention was immediately recognized as something that would revolutionize the French textile industry. Ironically, the impoverished factory mechanic, who had also risked his life in defense of his country, would earn no money directly from his invention. Instead, in an agreement with the city of Lyon, the patent for his Jacquard mechanism reverted to the city, which declared his invention public property in 1806. Fortunately, Jacquard was awarded a state pension by Emperor Napoleon that allowed him to profit from his innovation; in addition he received royalties on each loom sold and put into operation.
Perhaps more significant that its revolution of the textile industry, Jacquard's innovative use of the punched card mechanism greatly influenced other inventors. English inventor Charles Babbage used Jacquard's technology in his development of the analytical engine, a simple form of a calculator. American statistician Herman Hollerith adopted punchcards as a means of entering data into his census collator. His collator, developed in 1890, was used through the 1960s to tabulate results of the United States census.
Repercussions of Progress
Like many labor-saving developments that occurred during the Industrial Revolution, Jacquard's technology was not immediately embraced by silk weavers and others in weaving trades. They saw it as a threat to their jobs and protested its use. As early as 1801, riots broke out in Lyon over changes to the traditional loom. In 1804, after Jacquard's revised loom was introduced, the violence escalated. In addition to trying to destroy any Jacquard looms that were in use in Lyon, attempts were made on Jacquard's life.
However, the advantages of his looms eventually won out over the opposition. In 1800, only 3,500 working looms were in use in Lyon's silk industry. Within a decade, the number of working looms in the city reached 11,000. One textile mill owner even had thousands of workers on his payroll.
By 1810, France had become competitive with its longstanding rival, Great Britain, in the textile industry. In 1819, Jacquard was awarded the Legion of Honor Cross, as well as a gold medal, for his role in his nation's economic success. During the 1820s, his name became known worldwide as use of the Jacquard loom spread to England.
Jacquard died in Oullins, France on August 7, 1834. Over 160 years later, the technology that bears his name is still in use around the world.
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