Jacquard loom: Modern photo

The electrical data network that began with Morse’s telegraph eventually evolved to connect millions of computers 150 years later. But important groundwork for those computers was laid in 1801 by a French weaver named Joseph-Marie Jacquard. He invented a loom (actually a loom head) that worked automatically and with tremendous precision because it was “programmed” with the world’s first practical punch cards set up in “chains” of cards. Essentially this was the first machine to use punch cards to control a sequence of machine operations. The ability to change the pattern of the loom’s weave by simply changing cards was an important conceptual precursor to the developoment of computer programming. Tens of thousands of punch cards like these (8 x 26 holes) might be required to program the loom to weave a single image as complex as a black and white photograph or illustration. This ingenious programming technology later became the basis for player pianos, for the Hollerith cards used to record the U.S. Census in 1890, and for the famous IBM punch cards, tens of millions of which ran many of the world’s computers from the 1950s through the 1970s. By 1839, Joseph-Marie Jacquard had been dead five years. But his company demonstrated just how sophisticated his programmable loom was by having it weave this portrait of the French weaver in silk. The portrait required 24,000 individual punched cards to create. He is shown sitting on a chair covered with Jacquard fabric, and surrounded by the tools of his trade. The famous computer pioneer Charles Babbage owned one of these portraits and it is said that it inspired him to use perforated cards in his “analytical engine.”