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

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

by James Essinger
     
 

Jacquard's Web tells one of the greatest untold stories of science: how Joseph-Marie Jacquard, a master silk-weaver in Napoleonic France, invented a loom that was to spark the beginning of today's information age. The revolutionary Jacquard loom could create beautiful fabrics many times faster than had previously been possible, using a system of punched cards - now…  See more details below

Overview

Jacquard's Web tells one of the greatest untold stories of science: how Joseph-Marie Jacquard, a master silk-weaver in Napoleonic France, invented a loom that was to spark the beginning of today's information age. The revolutionary Jacquard loom could create beautiful fabrics many times faster than had previously been possible, using a system of punched cards - now rightly viewed as the world's first computer programs - to store instructions for patterns and designs. In this fascinating and engaging tale, James Essinger traces the 200-year evolution of Jacquard's idea from the studios of eighteenth-century French weavers, through the Industrial Revolution, to the information revolution of the twentieth century and to the billions of desktop computers we rely on around the world today.

Editorial Reviews

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
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

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780192805775
Publisher:
Oxford University Press
Publication date:
12/01/2004
Pages:
256
Product dimensions:
7.80(w) x 5.30(h) x 1.10(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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