The Jacquard Mechanism: Origins

Our modern-day digital technologies and computer systems can trace their origins back to the invention of the Jacquard mechanism and the influence it had upon the pioneers of computing.

Paradise Mill, Macclesfield Museums

Macclesfield Museums has the largest known collection of Jacquard handlooms in Europe, still housed in their original location at Paradise Mill.

There is currently a project taking place to restore two of the demonstration looms.  It is a wonderful opportunity to better understand the technical brilliance of the mechanism and keep the skills and knowledge alive to keep them working properly.

In this three part series, to complement the restoration work, we shall discover the remarkable history of the Jacquard mechanism; its origins, its innovation and its influence.

The Jacquard mechanism is named after Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752 – 1834) from Lyon in France, who invented it in 1804.  He rightly gets a lot of credit for this, as his was the first practical and fully automated system for weaving patterns on a loom.  However, he was building upon the work of some equally inventive people before him.

The Jacquard card loop, Paradise Mill, Macclesfield Museums
The Jacquard mechanism is famous for its use of punched cards that ‘program’ and automate the weaving of patterns.

Weaving is essentially a binary system.  A warp thread can either be lifted up so the weft passes under and can’t be seen, or the warp thread is left down so the weft passes over and can be seen.  Up or down.  There are only two options.  Binary.

On or off; yes or no; 1 or 0.  It is all binary.  The basis of computer programming.

The binary control to lift warp threads in Jacquard’s mechanism was a hole or no hole in card.  But Jacquard’s loom was not the first to use this system.

Basile Bouchon

The first recorded loom to use a system of punched holes in paper to automate the weaving process was invented by Basile Bouchon in 1725.  Like Jacquard, he was from Lyon in France, which was the major centre of silk production in the country.  Not much is known about the life of Bouchon except that he worked for his father’s silk weaving business in Lyon.  He was also later awarded the sum of 1000 livres by the city council as compensation for the work on his invention.

How did Bouchon come up with the idea for his loom mechanism?  The answer seems that his father was also involved in the manufacture of musical organs as well as weaving.  It is the process of making an organ that must have sparked Bouchon’s creative imagination.

The pins on the cylinder of a barrel organ, like those in a music box mechanism, need to be precisely positioned for the tune to play correctly.  To do this efficiently and ensure materials are not wasted when manufacturing these barrel organs, a sheet of paper was first wrapped around the cylinder.  The paper was marked with holes that acted as a guide.  The positions of where to place all the pins could quickly and accurately be marked onto the cylinder.  Bouchon realised that the paper with the holes, and the cylinder with the pins, contained the same information.

Inspiration struck.  Perhaps a sheet of paper with holes could be made to control a mechanism to the lift of warp threads on a loom.  Bouchon’s 1725 loom was not fully automatic though.  Another person was still needed to push the paper against the pins that selected the warp threads.

Basile Bouchon’s 1725 loom, displayed at the Musée des arts et métiers, Paris. Wikimedia Commons

Musical Barrel Organs

It might seem odd to be involved in the business of musical organs and weaving but the two are linked.  Huguenots were French Protestants and they had a long tradition as highly skilled weavers. When the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685 making Protestantism illegal in France, many Huguenots came over as refugees to England.  Spitalfields in London was where the Huguenot community settled and established their new silk weaving businesses.  Many Huguenots then also moved to other centres of silk production in the country such as Norwich and of course, here in Macclesfield.

The Huguenot weavers were fond of keeping canaries next to their looms to entertain them while they worked, and it was a tradition that they brought with them.  The singing of the canaries would help alleviate the relentless clatter of the looms as they wove.  Canaries could be taught to sing melodies by using a type of barrel organ called a serinette.  The word comes from the French word serin, meaning canary.

A Serinette, Wikimedia Commons

In 1851 Charles Dickens wrote an article entitled ‘Spitalfields’ for Household Words, the weekly magazine he edited.  He describes the handloom weaver at his work, “Again his loom clashes and jars, and he leans forward over his toil. In the window by him, is a singing bird in a little cage, which trolls its song, and seems to think the loom an instrument of music.”

Earlier ‘Programmable’ Looms – The Crumb Machine

Bouchon’s 1725 loom is the first to use a punched paper system but is not the only early type of ‘programmable’ loom.  Less well known are the looms from around the area of Upper Austria in the early 18th century.  It is possible that these looms were invented between 1680 and 1690.

The loom is known as the Crumb-machine (Bröselmaschine).  The system is again like the barrel organ or carillon bell ringing mechanisms, where the pins and staples on a cylinder play the tune.  Blocks are stuck onto a long loop of linen and these control the mechanism to lift the warp threads.  It is another binary system – a raised block or no raised block.

Crumb-machine (Bröselmaschine) from 1740. Weaving Museum Haslach, Upper Austria. Photo Courtesy Ellen Harlizius-Klück / Christina Leitner.

It is interesting to see how these early programmable looms such as the Crumb-machine and Basile Bouchon’s loom of 1725 were both likely influenced by these musical automata mechanisms.  Even the new forms of weaving notation for looms such as the crumb-machine had a musical influence perhaps.  Many Guild master craftsmen in the area, which would include weavers, met to compose and sing lyric poetry in Meistersinger competitions.  Comparing early weaving notation and early music notation the similarities are striking.  Both are essentially forms of code for depicting patterns.


Weaver’s draft book, Wikimedia Commons
Medieval music manuscript, Wikimedia Commons

 Jean-Baptiste Falcon

The next advance in the design of Bouchon’s loom came from his assistant, Jean-Baptiste Falcon.  Again, not much is known of his life but his loom in 1728 made an important change.  He moved from using a sheet of punched paper to using a loop of punched cards laced together, such as we see later in the Jacquard mechanism.  Paper was prone to tearing, card lasted longer.  Also, if a card was damaged, a single card was far easier to replace than an entire paper sheet.

Jean-Baptiste Falcon’s 1728 loom, displayed at the Musée des arts et métiers, Paris. Wikimedia Commons

The early looms of Bouchon and Falcon were not yet fully automatic and served more as prototypes rather than being taken up in general use by the industry.  The draw-boys who sat on top of the looms lifting the warp threads as instructed by the weaver would have to continue their work for a while yet, with all the monotony, discomfort and human error that job entailed.

Jacques Vaucanson

The next important developments were made by Jacques de Vacanson (1709 – 1782).  He was an incredibly talented inventor and is perhaps better known for making automata.  Life like mechanical figures, such as his flute player, which would seemingly play and move of their own accord.  They were operated by ingenious mechanisms hidden inside.

These automata were in many ways the first robots.

His most celebrated automaton was the digesting duck.  A mechanical duck that quacked, moved, and magically appeared to eat, digest and excrete food.

In 1741 Vaucanson was made inspector of silk manufacture and given the job of reforming the industry, which had been falling behind its competitors.  He spent two years informing himself of the entire silk manufacture process, visiting areas in Northern Italy as well as Southern France.

Italy was known for the exceedingly high quality of the silk it produced using the specialist machines it had for the twisting or ‘throwing’ process.  These silk production firms would closely guard their secrets and ‘industrial espionage’ was used to gather information.  There was a lot of industrial espionage in the silk industry.  It was how the Jacquard mechanism found its way to England as we shall find out in the next part of this series.

Vaucanson set out to reform the silk industry entirely.  The plan was to centralise and regulate silk production, something much more like the factory system that would emerge later.  The relationships between merchants and manufacturers would become more employer and employee based.  Strict regulation and automated machines standardising and speeding up the process.  This was unpopular with the workers in Lyon; there was uproar, with a strike and rioting ensued in 1744.  Vaucanson escaped disguised as a monk.

Vaucanson received much hostility from the weavers for his attempts at automating the weaving process.  He had stones thrown at him in the streets.  In retaliation, Vaucanson built a loom that was operated by a mechanical donkey saying “a horse, an ox or an ass can make cloth more beautiful and much more perfect than the most able silk workers.”

Vaucanson’s Loom c.1748, displayed at the Musée des arts et métiers, Paris. Wikimedia Commons

After 1744 Vaucanson concentrated more upon the new technology rather than the overall regulation of the industry.  From 1744 through to 1751 he developed many new machines for the silk industry aimed at improving quality and saving labour.  Among these inventions was his fully automated loom that improved upon the earlier partially automated looms of Bouchon and Falcon.

Vaucanson’s mechanism used a cylinder perforated with holes, which was mounted onto the top of the loom to eliminate the complicated system of weights that otherwise would be needed.  A sheet of paper punched with holes was placed over the cylinder to control the lift of warp threads. A ratchet system advanced the paper each step.  Growing similarities with the Jacquard mechanism were beginning to develop.

The downside of Vaucanson’s mechanism was that it could only produce regular repeating designs. Cylinders could be changed but it was too problematic.  The cylinders themselves were also expensive and difficult to make.  Vaucanson’s loom was therefore never fully taken up by the industry and, although a few were produced, it was soon discontinued.

The perfect mechanism for automating the weaving process would have to wait…

On July 7th 1752, in Lyon, a son was born to Jean Charles and his wife Antoinette Rive.  Jean Charles was a master weaver of brocaded fabrics and his wife worked as a pattern reader.  As with many children of weavers in Lyon, his son would go on to help his father with jobs in the workshop rather than attend school.  It is likely he spent many hours sitting on top of the loom being told which warp threads to lift while his father wove.

There were several branches of the Charles family around Lyon where they lived.  To help distinguish between them, they were all given nicknames.  The family branch to which master weaver Jean Charles belonged, and into which his son Joseph Marie had just been born, had the nickname ‘Jacquard’.

In the next instalment we shall find out about Joseph Marie Charles dit (called) Jacquard and the mechanism that was named after him.