Charles Babbage is widely recognized as a pioneer of the programmable computer for his ingenious designs for steam-powered calculators in the 19th century. But Babbage took inspiration from a number of earlier inventions, including a device invented in 1804 by French weaver and merchant Joseph Marie Jacquard. The device was attached to a loom and used printed punch cards to “program” intricate patterns into the woven fabric. One of these devices, circa 1850, just sold for $43,750 at the annual Sotheby’s History of Science and Technology auction.
“Technically, the term ‘jacquard loom’ is a misnomer,” said Cassandra Hatton, senior specialist at Sotheby’s. “There’s no such thing as a Jacquard loom — there’s a Jacquard mechanism that hooks onto a loom.” It is sometimes called a Jacquard-driven loom for that reason.
There were a handful of previous attempts to automate the weaving process, most notably Basile Bouchon’s 1725 invention of a loom attachment using a wide strip of punched paper and a row of hooks to manipulate the threads. Jacquard brought his own innovations to the concept.
By Sotheby’s auction site:
Jacquard… conceived of developing a semi-automatic tone selection device that would be integrated into the loom, resulting in faster production and more complex patterns. Jacquard’s punched card system worked similarly to a fax machine: Each punch in the card fed a black or white thread into the head of the loom, locating the desired thread in its place.
The invention was not popular with loom operators, many of whom lost their jobs and began destroying jacquard looms in protest.
The mechanism just sold at auction belonged to one of Hatton’s former customers, now deceased. The collector had attempted to establish a museum of the history of computer science, basing his view on the early efforts of Jacquard, Babbage, and others to mechanize computation. The loom “was his pride and joy,” Hatton said. “He bought the original mechanism and then commissioned someone to make the loom and a second… [mechanism] so he could use it. So the loom is fully operational.”
The piece comes with a large box of accessories including the original 19th century punch cards – everything you need to operate the machine.
Jacquard’s machine was able to program patterns with such precision, that in 1886 it was even used to create a prayer book woven entirely in silk, using black and gray thread. Only about 50 copies were made. The Sotheby’s auction didn’t offer any rare prayer books this year, but there was a jacquard portrait – woven in silk on a jacquard loom – with a mini loom and punched card on his desk, as well as another portrait of woven silk with several men in front of a loom with the above portrait (so very meta). Those portraits sold for $10,625 and $11,875 respectively.