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Sewing's Past Connected to Modern Computing

In 1801, Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752-1834) of Lyons, France, made the first successful commercial automatic draw (weaving) loom. The fabric designs that now bear the name jacquard were originally overseen only by skilled master weavers knowledgeable in creating intricate patterns in loom woven cloth. The process was tedious, highly repetitive, intricate, and a labor intensive task. The patterned cloth was expensive to create and so became exclusive to the privileged moneyed few of the era. Plain woven cloth was relegated to the masses.

Jacquard came up with the idea to automate the patterning process by means of a series of instructions given to the loom threads by using a punched paper card system. The patterns woven were controlled by the patterns of the holes in the sets of punched paper cards strung together in long sequence, passing in a continuous loop over a ‘card reader’ - a long, thick, rectangular-shaped piece of hard wood, flat on all 4 sides, metal-tipped, and containing a corresponding number of tiny holes filled with small protruding rods. The punched cards would determine which rods would pass through the holes as the cards passed over the card reader. Changing the set of cards would change the pattern produced in the fabric; the loom however could remain efficiently threaded with its often thousands of lines of thread. See a Jacquard Loom

By 1812, the punched card device was attached to some 11,000 looms in Lyons and became a technological break-through for its day by reducing the need for intensive human labor and allowing for the mass production of patterned textiles.

The weaving industry that would precipitate the Industrial Revolution seems to have little in common with today’s computer industry, but the idea that information could be stored by punching holes on a paper card was to be of great use in the early development of mainframe computers (Landow, June 2000).

The punched-card idea was adopted soon after by Charles Babbage around 1830 to control his Analytical Engine, and later by Herman Hollerith for tabulating the 1890 U.S. census (U.S. Census, 1890). Once Hollerith had perfected his first series of electro-mechanical punched-card machines, including a tabulating machine and a sorting machine, he founded a company called the Tabulating Machine Corporation. This new company had a rocky start until a perceptive manager, Thomas Watson, took over. One of Watson’s initial moves was to rename the company, International Business Machines, today known simply as IBM.

Punched cards were once the common way to feed data into a computer. In a very real sense, punched cards became the first data-processing ‘programs’ and were still used, via an 80-column format in some IBM computers up the 1980s, and on some Eastern seaboard turnpikes as toll tickets into the early 1990s. An adaptation to IBM’s existing punch card design, developed by competitor Remington Rand, produced a 90-column format to accommodate their UNIVAC card code. This format remained in use through the 1960s at Macy’s Department stores and Lerner Stores, the U.S. Navy Medical Supply Office, in the Polaris missile control system, the New York City Tax Department, and Long Island Lighting to name just a few.

Antique player pianos used an adaptation of the system of punched cards as sheet music on perforated paper rolls that in conjunction with a vacuum process was used to activate the piano’s keys.

One of the last important uses of punched cards was for election voting.
First introduced as a ballot format in the 1960s, punch cards grew to become the most widely used computer-based technology for tabulating election results. In the contested U.S. Presidential Election of 2000, it was estimated that 1/3 of the polling places in the U.S. still used this punched card format (Jones, 2000). Jacquard would have presumably known the magnitude of his punched card automation of the draw loom, however he could not have foreseen the enormous impact to modern civilization.

The Jacquard loom with its punched-paper cards and card-reader system has a pivotal place in history by successfully automating a labor-intensive and time-consuming process, promoting the mass-production of patterned textiles, and became the precursor for the modern computing age. The card reader and punched cards are still in limited use today on some looms in China and Japan that produce brocades and obis for traditional dress and in some looms in India to produce saris.

How does this matter to sewing enthusiasts? The next time you have the delightful opportunity to sew with jacquard fabrics, try to envision what it may have been like some 200 years ago as the massive wooden draw looms worked harried young apprentices laboring under the watchful eye of the master weaver and smile knowingly at your computerized sewing machine!

Sew happy, sew inspired.

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