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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.