Jacquard's Web: How a Hand-Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age

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Circuits from silk? Today's technophiles probably have no idea how much today's computer technology owes to the invention of one ingenuous textile manufacturer in nineteenth-century France. Here, master storyteller James Essinger shows through a series of remarkable and meticulously researched historical connections how the Jacquard loom kick-started a process of scientific evolution which would lead directly to the development of the modern computer.
Jacquard's 1804 invention, a loom which used punch cards with stored instructions for weaving different patterns and designs, enabled the master silk-weavers of Lyons to weave fabrics 25 times faster than the competition. Here, Essinger reveals the plethora of extraordinary links between that innovation in weaving and today's computer age, introducing us to the intriguing and colorful people who paved the way. The book concludes by bringing the story completely up-to-date with the latest developments in the World Wide Web and the fascinating phenomenon of artificial intelligence.
Attractively illustrated and compellingly narrated, Jacquard's Web presents an eye-opening and scarcely known history that will prove fascinating to readers of popular science, especially those interested in the history of science, technology, and computing, as well as professional scientists, historians, and students.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"With wit and imagination, Essinger has woven a marvelous tapestry celebrating this rugs-to-riches story and the unlikely birth of the information age."--Entertainment Weekly

"Jacquard's Web is more than the biography of a man and his machine. Mr. Essinger moves from the Industrial Age to the Information Age, connecting the loom, step by step, to the Harvard Mark I, the first proper computer, presented to the public in 1944.... Essinger tells his story with passion and with a gracious willingness to help the lay reader grasp the intricacies of technology."--Wall Street Journal

"Essinger does more than weave together science, history, and business: he sheds light on the nature of innovation.... His book deftly shows how even the most surprising breakthroughs are based on the work of others, and need a host of enabling factors to take root. Without the appropriate financial, technological, and cultural factors, no inventor, regardless of passion, can harvest his brilliant machine.... His tale of cultural, economic, and personal factors that enable ideas to become real tools makes this book a welcome addition to the literature of innovation."-- Tom Ehrenfeld, The Boston Globe

"Anyone who enjoyed Tom Standage's book on automata, The Mechanical Turk, will probably enjoy Jacquard's Web."--New Scientist

"An original perspective...the thread that runs through it--the relation of everything that has come since to the principle of the Jacquard loom--quite compelling."--Walter Gratzer, King's College London

Kirkus Reviews
A British science writer traces the history of the punched card, from the Jacquard loom, which programmed the weaving of elaborate silk brocades, to the modern computer. After a brief history of silk, Essinger introduces Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752-1834), the son of a master-weaver. In Napoleonic France, after the revolution, Jacquard puttered aimlessly until about 1800, when he patented an improved loom. In its final form, the Jacquard loom wove the complex patterns that made it famously 24 times faster than earlier versions, but with half the manpower. Honored by Napoleon, Jacquard lived out his life in prosperity; but the story of his cards had just begun. In England, Charles Babbage (1792-1871) conceived a machine to calculate the mathematical tables that Victorian science and industry were increasingly coming to rely on. In 1834 he decided to use Jacquard's cards to control his machine. With the help of Lord Byron's daughter Ada, Countess Lovelace (1816-52), he worked on the design for several years, but the lack of sufficiently precise and uniform mechanical parts prevented him from completing his Analytical Engine. The next step in the career of Jacquard's cards came when the American engineer Herman Hollerith (1860-1929) built a machine to tabulate the data from the 1890 US Census. In 1911, Hollerith's tabulating machine company merged with two others to form IBM. Those IBM cards (as they were now known) programmed the pioneering computer designed by Howard Aiken and built by IBM in 1944, and the electronic machines-ENIAC, UNIVAC, and their successors-that made computing practical. The IBM card dominated computing until the 1980s, when electronic devices took over its function,and played a role in history as late as the election of 2000. Essinger's sketches of the various inventors and scientists are lively, and he effectively places their contributions in historical context. Fascinating scientific history based on the humblest of artifacts. Agent: Sheila Ableman
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780192805782
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 5/21/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 930,479
  • Product dimensions: 7.70 (w) x 5.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

James Essinger is a writer with a particular interest in the history of ideas that have had a practical impact on the modern world. He is currently working on a novel about Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace and on a popular history of the written word.

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Table of Contents

1. The engraving that wasn't
2. A better mouse-trap
3. The son of a master weaver
4. The emperor's new clothes
5. From weaving to computing
6. The difference engine
7. The analytical engine
8. A question of faith and funding
9. The lady who loved the Jacquard loom
10. A crisis with the American census
11. The first Jacquard looms that wove information
12. The birth of IBM
13. The Thomas Watson phenomenon
14. Howard Aiken dreams of a computer
15. IBM and the Harvard Mark 1
16. Weaving at the speed of light
17. The future

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