Jul 072021

Today is the birthday (1752) of Joseph Marie Jacquard, a French weaver and merchant responsible for the refinement of the programmable loom, using punched cards, that was the predecessor to using punched cards for other programmable machines, including the earliest IBM digital computers.  His invention is usually called the Jacquard loom, but it is more accurate to say that he invented the Jacquard machine which drove a kind of loom that was already in use. Also, his birth name was actually Joseph Marie Charles. In his grandfather’s generation, several branches of the Charles family lived in Lyon’s Couzon-Au-Mont d’Or suburb (on Lyon’s north side, along the Saône River). To distinguish the various branches, the community gave them nicknames; Joseph’s branch was called “Jacquard” Charles. Thus, Joseph’s grandfather was Bartholomew Charles dit [called] Jacquard, and he was J.M. Charles dit Jacquard.

Joseph Marie Charles dit Jacquard was born into a conservative Catholic family in Lyon. He was one of nine children of Jean Charles dit Jacquard, a master weaver of Lyon, and his wife, Antoinette Rive. However, only Joseph and his sister Clémence (born 7th November 1747) survived to adulthood. Although his father was a man of property, Joseph received no formal schooling and remained illiterate until he was 13. He was finally taught to read by his brother-in-law, Jean-Marie Barret, who ran a printing and book selling business. Barret also introduced Joseph to learned societies and scholars. Joseph initially helped his father operate his loom, but the work proved too arduous, so Jacquard was placed first with a bookbinder and then with a maker of printers’ type.

His mother died in 1762, and when his father died in 1772, Joseph inherited his father’s house, looms and workshop as well as a vineyard and quarry in Couzon-au-Mont d’Or. Joseph then dabbled in real estate. In 1778, he listed his occupations as master weaver and silk merchant. Jacquard’s occupation at this time is problematic because by 1780 most silk weavers did not work independently; instead, they worked for wages from silk merchants, and Jacquard was not registered as a silk merchant in Lyon.

By 1800, Joseph began inventing various devices. He invented a treadle loom in 1800, a loom to weave fishing nets in 1803, and starting in 1804, the “Jacquard” loom, which could weave patterned silk automatically. His early inventions did not operate well and were unsuccessful. In 1801, Jacquard exhibited a loom at the Exposition des produits de l’industrie française in Paris, where he was awarded a bronze medal. In 1803 he was summoned to Paris and attached to the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers. A loom by Jacques de Vaucanson on display gave him ideas for various improvements in his own, which he gradually perfected to its final state. The loom was declared public property in 1805, and Jacquard was rewarded with a pension and a royalty on each machine. His invention was fiercely opposed by the silk-weavers, who feared that its introduction, owing to the saving of labor, would deprive them of their livelihood. But its advantages secured its general adoption, and by 1812 there is a claim that there were 11,000 Jacquard looms in use in France. This claim has been challenged, however.  Initially few Jacquard looms were sold because of problems with the punched card mechanism. Only after 1815 — once Jean Antoine Breton had solved the problems with the punched card mechanism — did sales of looms increase.

I am not going to launch into a mammoth technological analysis of weaving and loom design, but I do want to mention some details to add some nuances to the history.  Inventions are not made in a vacuum.  All inventions build on the work of others, but frequently popular history forgets these “others” without whom the “great inventor” would not have achieved greatness.  Let’s talk about the “others” in the history of loom manufacture.

A loom has a series of longitudinal warp threads that can be raised or lowered in various configurations to make patterns as a shuttle is run back and forth along the line of warp threads to form a weft that binds them together.  Changing the configuration of the warp threads on a manual loom requires operating a series of pedals, and to weave a complex design requires exceptional skill.  Mechanizing the process was a huge technological leap of the Industrial Revolution.

In 1725 Basile Bouchon invented an attachment for looms which used a broad strip of punched paper to select the warp threads that would be raised during weaving. Bouchon’s loom was unsuccessful because it could handle only a modest number of warp threads. By 1737, a master silk weaver of Lyon, Jean Falcon, had increased the number of warp threads that the loom could handle automatically. He developed an attachment for looms in which Bouchon’s paper strip was replaced by a chain of punched cards, which could raise and lower multiple warp threads simultaneously. Thus, Falcon is the inventor of punched cards for data input, not Jacquard. Falcon used a “cylinder” (actually, a four-sided perforated tube) to hold each card in place while it was pressed against the rows of hooks that raised and lowered the warp threads. His loom was modestly successful; about 40 such looms had been sold by 1762.

In 1741, Jacques de Vaucanson, a French inventor who designed and built automated mechanical toys, was appointed inspector of silk factories. Between 1747 and 1750 he tried to automate Bouchon’s mechanism. In Vaucanson’s mechanism, the hooks that were to lift the warp threads were selected by long pins or “needles”, which were pressed against a sheet of punched paper that was draped around a perforated cylinder.  The main improvement that Vaucanson made to Bouchon’s loom was to relocate the punched paper mechanism above the loom so that it could control the threads from above.  Bochon’s mechanism was situated below the loom where the foot pedals had been on manual looms, meaning that a complicated system of pulleys and levers had to be used to transfer the information from the punched paper running under the loom to the system that controlled the threads over them.  Vaucanson’s loom was not successful because, like Bouchon’s mechanism, it could not control enough warp threads to make sufficiently elaborate patterns to justify the cost of the mechanism. Enter Jacquard.

To stimulate the French textile industry, which was competing with Britain’s industrialized industry, Napoleon Bonaparte placed large orders for Lyon’s silk, starting in 1802. In 1804, at the urging of Lyon fabric maker and inventor Gabriel Dutillieu, Jacquard studied Vaucanson’s loom, which was stored at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris. By 1805 Jacquard had eliminated the paper strip from Vaucanson’s mechanism and returned to using Falcon’s chain of punched cards. That is, Jacquard did not invent the automated loom from scratch; he took existing ideas and improved upon them.

The potential of Jacquard’s loom was immediately recognized. On April 12th, 1805, Napoleon and Josephine visited Lyon and viewed Jacquard’s new loom. On April 15th, 1805, Napoleon granted the patent for Jacquard’s loom to the city of Lyon. In return, Jacquard received a lifelong pension of 3,000 francs; furthermore, he received a royalty of 50 francs for each loom that was bought and used during the period from 1805 to 1811.

Lyon has featured many times in my posts, so it is getting harder and harder to find a new recipe.  This one is refreshing for a summer’s day.  The greens are not lettuce but endive or escarole.