Jacquard, Joseph-Marie (1752-1834) French Inventor, Textile Industry (Scientist)

Joseph-Marie Jacquard was an inventor whose innovation had much wider application than he had originally intended. He invented the Jacquard loom as a means of expediting the arduous task of hand-looming intricate patterns; instead, Jacquard programmed the pattern into a series of punch cards that symbolized the pattern through holes punched in the card. This hole functioned as a type of on/off switch, telling the loom whether or not to weave. This system of communicating with machines grew into the binary system of 0s and 1s, indicating to the machine whether to switch on or off, and lent itself perfectly to the use of transistors, which function as on/off switches. The binary system evolved into the most basic language of computers.

Jacquard was born in 1752 in Lyon, France. He apprenticed in several different trades— bookbinding, cutlery making, and type founding—before committing himself to the trade of weaving. Jacquard based this decision mostly on the fact that he had just inherited a small weaving business from his family. He entered the profession wholeheartedly, devoting himself to producing the most intricate and aesthetically pleasing designs. However, weaving these complex designs proved to be time-consuming, making the business a losing proposition. Jacquard’s weaving business failed, and he moved back to cutlery making, but his mind remained fixed on weaving.

By 1801, Jacquard had devised a means of increasing the efficiency of the weaving process exponentially: by replacing the weaver with an automated system. Jacquard’s system relied on punch cards whose holes corresponded to weaving instructions. However, this system reduced the role of weavers in the weaving process from hand manufacturers to mere designers of a product manufactured by machine. Weavers of the day revolted against their potential obsolescence by destroying Jacquard looms, but once the technology became available, it was impossible to stay its growth into the position previously occupied by human workers. Not only did this invention help incite the Industrial Revolution, but it also presaged the technological revolution of more than a century later.

Between 1801 and 1804, Jacquard improved upon the design and construction of his looms as well as perfecting his punch-card system at the Paris Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers. His demonstration of the Jacquard loom and its attendant punch-card system in Paris in 1804 so impressed Napoleon that the dictator awarded Jacquard a medal, a patent, and a pension. By 1812, there were 11,000 Jacquard looms in France alone, and they were spreading into other countries.

Jacquard died in 1834, but the significance of his work lives on. His invention of the punch-card system acted as a harbinger of the advent of computers under the binary system. In fact, Charles Babbage, who theorized and built a calculating machine utilizing punch cards, had already realized this application in the 1830s. Though Jacquard’s invention was extremely progressive theoretically, its immediate practical implications were less positive, as the machine put many weavers out of work and foretold the future mechanization of the labor process.

Next post:

Previous post: