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Icon:Handloom with Jacquard machine, c.1825

related ingenious images © Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library

Often referred to as a milestone in 'programming', the Jacquard mechanism uses a series of punched cards to control the weaving of the fabric. Although the system had precedents, it was the first to be developed commercially. The French silk-weaver Joseph Jacquard's system could be installed as a separate unit and added to a conventional loom, which may help to explain why this system succeeded where others failed.

On a conventional handloom, the weaver raises a set of warp threads at each pass of the shuttle by depressing a treadle. The weaving of highly patterned fabrics was done on a 'draw loom', and involved the manual selection of those warp threads which were to be raised for each pick, a task that was usually performed by an assistant to the weaver, the 'draw boy'. The draw boy represented an extra cost and any mistakes on his part would introduce a defect into the woven pattern. Worked by a treadle like the plain handloom, the Jacquard system selected the warp threads in accordance with the arrays of holes punched in the series of cards. With it, the loom could be worked fast without the need for the assistant, and with less risk of error.

Outside the field of weaving, the punched card programming system lay dormant for many years. Then in the 1890s it was adopted by the Hollerith company for mechanical tabulating machines and was later used for programming and data storage in electronic computers when the Hollerith company became IBM.

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