JACQUARD’S WEB by James Essinger
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How a Hand-Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age
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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.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-19-280577-0
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2004


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by James Essinger