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By Francesca Elliott on

Weaving numbers: The Jacquard loom and early computing

Textile production and computing—two of Manchester’s most important historic industries—are brought together in the Jacquard loom, on display in our Textiles Gallery.

When British mathematician Charles Babbage released his plans for the Analytical Engine, widely considered the first modern computer design, fellow mathematician Ada Lovelace is famously quoted as saying that ‘the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.’

The Jacquard loom is often considered a predecessor to the modern computer because it uses a binary system to store information that can be read by the loom and reproduced many times over.

Binary is a way of storing information using indicators each with two settings. On a punch card, each space has either a hole, or no hole; these are the two possible settings. If you have enough spaces you can store complex pieces of information in this way. The use of binary in the Jacquard loom represented a revolution in human-machine interaction.

Much like early computers, which used punch cards to store information, the Jacquard loom uses punch cards to store a weaving pattern, which can then be replicated many times. To program the loom, a designer first draws their pattern onto grid paper. This pattern is then transferred onto punch cards, with an empty grid square corresponding to a hole, and a filled-in grid square corresponding to no hole. The cards are then fed through the Jacquard loom head, which reads the cards and replicates the pattern.

Designed in 1805, the Jacquard loom was capable of weaving incredibly complex and detailed patterns in a fraction of the time that a manual master weaver would take to create the same product. This revolutionised the manufacture of patterned textiles, allowing them to be produced at a fraction of the cost, and therefore making them available to a new market of middle-class consumers, rather than being reserved for the wealthiest in society.

However, the loom was not without its opponents when it was first introduced to industry. Master weavers in the early 1800s took many years to learn their trade, and many were angry at being replaced by a machine that could do the job more efficiently. As an act of protest, weavers began removing their shoes and throwing them into the looms, breaking the threads and rendering the looms temporarily useless. The shoes worn by workers in France at this time were called sabot, and this is where the word ‘sabotage’ comes from.

The Jacquard loom in the machine well in the Textiles Gallery at the museum was built in Manchester in 1900, and was used to produce complex woven ribbons in Coventry, where ribbon weaving was a major industry for over a century.

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