The Jacquard Mechanism: Influence

Jacquard Punch Cards in Paradise Mill, Macclesfield Museums
Holes in card. Exciting? Entertaining? Revolutionary? Invaluable? Influential?

Maybe not the first thoughts that spring to mind. But, read on to discover the huge influence those holes have played in the development of technology that we take for granted in our modern, everyday lives.

A Master Of Jacquard Woven Silk Art
Portrait Of Jacquard Woven In Silk by Carquillat Front & Reverse. Bonnefond, Claude, Artist, and François Michel-Marie Carquillat. À la mémoire de J.M. Jacquard / d’après le tableau de C. Bonnefond ; exécuté par Didier Petit et Cie., 1839. [Lyon: Didier Petit et Cie. Lyon, MDCCCXXXIX]

In 1839, five years after Joseph Marie Jacquard’s death, a portrait of him was turned into a woven design. The image was based on the portrait painted by Claude Bonnefond and it was woven by a master weaver in Lyon called Francois Michel-Marie Carquillat (1803 – 1884). Carquillat specialised in creating highly detailed woven images. The portrait of Jacquard was produced for the firm Didier, Petit et Cie and the picture demonstrated the incredible capability of the Jacquard looms.

Carquillat transposed the painted portrait onto a point paper draft. The artwork alone took around 1000 hours to complete. He only used black and white silk threads. The silk used was so fine and grouped so tightly that he could achieve realistic shading effects, create depth and give a three dimensional effect to the woven image. The reverse of the woven image is an exact negative, just like a photographic negative.

Detail of the bottom right hand corner of the woven Jacquard portrait above. It depicts the punch cards and shuttle in incredible detail

It took 24,000 punched cards to translate the image into the woven fabric. Cutting all the cards accurately and lacing all 24,000 together in the correct order was months of work. Jacquard card cutters needed to have intense powers of concentration. The actual weaving would only have taken a day or two. All the work is in the preparation. The overall size of the silk sheet is 59cm x 43 cm so the amount of detail is remarkable. The resulting silk picture had such detail that the image, when framed and glazed, had the appearance of an engraving. They were understandably very expensive and only made to order. Only around 20 of the original woven pictures survive today.

Take a look at the video below for information about a Jacquard card cutters job.

Programming Pioneers


Daguerreotype of Charles Babbage by Antoine Claudet, Wikimedia Commons
One person who owned a copy of Carquillat’s woven portrait of Jacquard was Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871). He was involved in a variety of scientific fields including mathematics, philosophy and mechanical engineering. He is perhaps best known for his Difference Engine (a mechanical calculator) and for the idea of his Analytical Engine. The Analytical Engine was never built but it is often regarded as being the first true computer. Babbage is often referred to as the “Father of Computing” for this reason.

Charles Babbage was independently very wealthy and held regular parties at his home, to which he invited the important people in high society of the day. His woven portrait of Jacquard was often a talking point at these parties. Babbage would delight in guests, such as the Duke of Wellington, mistakenly thinking the portrait was an engraving.

Daguerreotype of Ada Lovelace by Antoine Claudet, Wikimedia Commons
Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852) was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron and Lady Annabelle Milbanke. It was Ada’s tutor, the scientific writer Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872), who introduced Ada to Charles Babbage at one of his soirées in 1833. Ada charmed everyone. She was invited by Babbage to see the prototype of his Difference Engine. The machine fascinated Ada and she and Babbage would meet and correspond on a regular basis.

After Ada saw the Jacquard loom in operation it is likely they will both have discussed the use punched cards as a means of storing information. Babbage will also have been aware of the Jacquard loom, having a keen interest in mechanical engineering. Punched cards are the means of data input that Babbage used in the design for the Analytical Engine.

Punch Cards for Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Science Museum Group, Creative Commons

Babbage gave a lecture in France on his Analytical Engine. This was translated into an article published by the Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea (1809 – 1896). Scientist and inventor Charles Wheatsone (1802 – 1875), who was a friend of Babbage, then commissioned Ada Lovelace to translate the Menabrea paper. Over a period of nine months during 1841 and 1842, Ada translated and expanded upon Menebrea’s paper on Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Her paper is three times longer and includes a method for calculating Bernoulli numbers using the Analytical Engine, which is why Ada Lovelace is referred to as the first computer programmer.

What Ada recognised, more than anyone else, was the potential of the Analytical Engine. To Babbage it was a means for crunching numbers. To Ada the possibilities went far beyond numbers. It is summed up in the following famous quote from her paper:

‘We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves…
…the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent’.

For further information on both Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage and a more detailed explanation of their work see the following article:

The Power Of Punched Paper

Although Babbage’s Analytical Engine was never built, the idea of using punched cards or paper began to be taken up elsewhere. The use of punched cards can be found in music, telegraphy, data recording, code breaking and computing.


Do you listen to recorded music? Whether it’s Spotify or Vinyl – Thank those holes in card!

Player Piano Roll, Source: Christian d fielding, Wikimedia Commons
It was the manufacturing process of barrel organs that inspired Basile Bouchon to use a punched paper system in his loom of 1725, which finally led to Jacquard’s mechanism (see Part 1 in this series on the origins). The use of punched paper and card would feed back into mechanical music machines during the second half of the 19th century.

Music rolls for player pianos such as the Pianola and books of music for fairground organs all used the punched card system to control the notes played by the instrument.

Computer Digital Audio Workstation Piano Roll View of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, Wikimedia Commons
We are now all familiar with listening to recorded music. A music sequencer is a device that can record, edit and play music. Today a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) would be used to record and edit a track. Most of these modern DAW’s have piano roll modes where the notes played are visible as blocks (exactly the same way as with a punched roll of paper).
Carpentier’s modified Mélotrope, Paris, 1887. Source: Pianola Institute
And it all began with what could be described as the first real music sequencer, which was controlled via a punched paper roll. It was the Mélographe Répétiteur, invented in 1881 by Jules Carpentier (1851 – 1921). Holes were cut into the paper roll, in real time, as the musician played the keyboard. Carpentier described it as operating “in the language of Jacquard”. The resulting music could then be played back, exactly as it had been performed, using the corresponding Mélotrope mechanism. If there happened to be a wrong note in the performance this could be edited by patching the hole and cutting a new one. Just like the Jacquard card cutters would have done.

MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is the system used today to edit and control the sound. It is essentially a language that manipulates the music – which note is played, how loud or soft, the length of time it sounds. Most virtual instruments in DAW’s, whether they are real instrument samples or electronic synthesisers, are controlled by MIDI. Many of the soundtracks recorded for film and television are real sampled instruments virtually controlled by MIDI in a Digital Audio Workstation.

When Ada Lovelace wrote about Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine saying ‘the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent’, she was absolutely correct. Ada had predicted algorithmic composition and computer music long before it ever existed.


Do you use text messaging, WhatsApp, emails, look at websites, read articles online?

We now take for granted that a message can immediately be sent to anyone, anywhere in the world. Telegraphy was an early form of modern day text messaging. It involves sending symbolic codes to transmit the text over a long distance to the recipient, who can then decode the message.

Wheatstone’s Stick Punch, Science Museum Group, Creative Commons

Automating the sending and receiving messages sped up the entire process. It was Charles Wheatstone that first came up with a system in 1867 to send Morse code messages faster via a punched paper tape. His “Stick Punch” had three big buttons, one for a dot, one for a dash, and one for a space. Punching the tape was done by holding rubber tipped sticks or mallets in your fists and hitting the buttons to punch the tape.

At a similar time in France, Émile Baudot (1845 – 1903) had developed his own telegraph printing system using a 5-bit binary code. This code was later modified by Donald Murray (1865 – 1945). Morse code was designed to be used by two operators, a sender and receiver and could only transmit the alphabet using a variable length system of dots and dashes. The 5-bit Baudot code could transmit the alphabet as well as punctuation and control signals in a steady steam of fixed length bits.

Baudot Telegraph Code, Wikimedia Commons
Baudot code was the forerunner of the ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) standard that is now used in computers. It is a universal computer language, the code that translates the binary language of the computer to the text you read on your screen.

Is your data stored for work payroll, banking, tax, accountancy, pensions, electoral register, census recording…statistics of any kind?

Punched cards eventually moved from being used simply as a set of instructions to be read by a machine, as with the Jacquard loom to something much more powerful. They began to be used for storing, searching and tabulating data.

Semyon Korsakov, Wikimedia Commons
The first person to propose using punched cards to store and sort data was Semyon Korsakov (1797 – 1853). In 1817 he took a job working for the statistics department for the Police Ministry in St. Petersburg. His work there led him to the idea of mechanising the search of data. He announced his new machines in a paper in 1832 entitled “Description of a new way for research, using machines for comparing ideas”. In the same year his ideas were proposed to the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. His application was rejected. The experts could see no potential in the idea.
Herman Hollerith, Wikimedia Commons
It was not until 1884 that the idea would once again resurface. It was Herman Hollerith (1860 – 1929) who would revolutionise the recording of data. In America, like the UK, a census of the population is required every 10 years. After graduating from the Columbia University School Of Mines, Hollerith worked as a statistician for the United States Census Bureau on the 1880 census. He saw the time consuming and error prone nature of the process. The 1880 census recorded 50 million residents and it took seven years to complete the data analysis. There were concerns that the 1890 census might take even longer and overrun the start of the 1900 census.

Hollerith’s mentor and supervisor at the Census Bureau was John Shaw Billings (1838 – 1913). He too saw the problems in the data recording process saying to Hollerith, “There ought to be some mechanical way of doing this job, something on the principle of the Jacquard loom, whereby holes in a card regulate the pattern to be woven.” Hollerith was also thinking along the same lines. His brother-in-law was in the silk weaving business and they had discussed possible improvements to the machines at his mills. Hollerith had also been inspired by the punching of tickets by train conductors to record basic information about the passengers.

Hollerith Punch Card 1895, Wikimedia Commons
And so Hollerith’s Tabulator was created. He set up his own business The Tabulating Machine Company. His machines were so successful that the 1890 census of more than 62 million residents took only 30 months to process. His tabulating machines using punch cards were used in census recording all over the world including the United Kingdom where they were used in recording the 1911 census.

In 1911 Herman Hollerith sold his company to Charles Ranlett Flint (1850 – 1934) where it renamed the Computer-Tabulating-Recording Company. This changed name again in 1924 to International Business Machines or IBM, one of the best known companies in computing.

Hollerith Punch Card Tabulator and Sorting Box, Source: Adam Schuster, Wikimedia Commons
In this country the British Tabulating Machine Company also began to manufacture Hollerith equipment as more companies and institutions began to require more efficient data recording and analysis. Their machines and manufacturing skills would soon become truly invaluable.

The story of punch cards and perforated paper during the Second World War is incredible. Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace’s dream of an Analytical Engine for computing would soon become reality.
We shall find out about the enduring legacy of Jacquard mechanism and punch cards next time in the final part of this series.