1801 – Jacquard invented an automatic loom controlled by punched cards

We are continuing our History of Computers category with the Jacquard mechanical loom (that could be attached to a power loom or a hand loom, the head controlled which warp thread was raised during shedding), that was invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1801. It simplifies the process of manufacturing textiles with complex patterns, where multiple shuttles could be used to control the colors of the weaves.

It was a continuation of earlier inventions by the Frenchmen Basile Bouchon (1725) who invented a way to control a loom with a perforated paper tape, Jean Baptiste Falcon (1728), who improved Bouchon’s machine, and Jacques Vaucanson (1740), who crafted the world’s first completely automated loom.

Close-up view of the punch cards used by Jacquard loom on display at the museum of science and industry.
Close-up view of the punch cards used by Jacquard loom on display at the museum of science and industry. Photograph taken by George H. Williams in July, 2004.

The Jacquard loom is controlled by punched cards with punched holes, each row of which corresponds to one row of the design. A punch card is a piece of stiff paper that contains digital information represented by the presence or absence of holes in predefined positions.  The significance of punch cards cannot be underestimated: multiple rows of holes punched on each card and the many cards that compose the design of the textile are strung together in order are a perfect example of a hands-on algorithm application that allows to control a sequence of operations. The ability to change the pattern of the fabric by simply changing the punch cards was an important conceptual precursor to the development of computer programming. This invention is an important step in the history of computing and hardware. Semen Korsakov was later reputedly the first to use the punched cards in informatics for information store and search. Korsakov announced his invention in September 1832, offering his machines for public use rather than seeking a commercial patent.

Now obsolete as a recording medium, punch cards were widely used throughout the 19th century for controlling textile looms and in the late 19th and early 20th century for operating fairground organs and related musical instruments. They were used through the 20th century in unit record machines for input, processing, and data storage. Even early digital computers used punched cards as the primary medium for input of both computer programs and data. Most known punch card formats are: Hollerith’s punched card formats,IBM 80-column punched card formats and character codes, Mark sense (or Electrographic) cards, Aperture cards, IBM Stub (or Short) cards, IBM Port-A-Punch, IBM 96-column, and Powers/Remington Rand UNIVAC.