Technology Has Roots in Fashion

October, 2016
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The year is 1801, the city is Paris, France and a self-taught man from a long line of Lyonnaise silk weavers is about to shake up the weaving industry and make a lasting impact on fashion; automation and modernity.  The man is Joseph Jacquard and during a visit to the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts in Paris he is shown Jacques de Vaucanson’s 1745 power loom (which has been collecting dust for around 50 years).

The Evolution of the Punched Card

Vaucanson’s automated power loom was invented to solve the problem associated with complex weaving which his predecessor Basile Bouchon also attempted to solve in 1725. Bouchon inspired by his father’s organ music trade had the insight of using paper punched out with holes just like those used by Organ makers when designing music cylinders.  It was however, Bouchon’s assistant Jean-Baptiste Falcon who replaced the punched paper roll with a set of punched cards attached to one another in an endless loop, making it possible to change the program rapidly.  

Armed with the knowledge of his predecessors, Joseph Jacquard stood in this arts and crafts museum and from this vantage point he could see the shortcomings and the foresight of both the punched card system and the power loom.  Inspired, he adds a flexible punch card to the front of Vaucanson’s power loom which creates an efficient and programmable system for weaving complicated fabrics. 

When he demonstrates this to the public he receives praise for meeting the complex demands of the fashionably minded but condemnation and threats from Lyonnaise weavers who saw their livelihoods changing.  Without any doubt, he leaves his mark on the global fashion industry with his signature Jacquard loom and Jacquard print.  

The First Computer

By 1812 there were 11,000 Jacquard looms working in France, and by 1833 there were about 100,000 power-looms being used in Britain.

It is around this time of textile industry boom in Britain that Charles Babbage a British inventor invests 400 francs on a portrait of Joseph Jacquard, woven in silk, on a Jacquard loom that used 24,000 punched cards.

This purchase was significant because Babbage was paying homage to the man who inspired his ‘Analytical Engine’ design that used instructions from punched cards to store numbers; perform sequential control and other elements that shaped the modern digital computer.  

The First Computer Programmer

The year now is 1815 and on a cold dreary December in London, Augusta Ada Byron is born into an aristocratic family to an artistic father and an intellectual mother.  She has the advantages of being from a wealthy family but will never have a relationship with her father the Poet Lord Byron, and a somewhat tenuous one with her mother. 

Ada’s mother, Lady Byron is a gifted mathematician and wastes no time immersing her daughter in a rigorous science and math education. 

Lady Byron is successful in shaping her daughter’s intellect, and at the age of 12, Ada writes a book called ‘Flyology’ that shows her fascination with mechanical engineering but finds herself wanting more than just scientific and mathematical knowledge.  It’s hard to say if it’s her yearning for her father or the romantic philosophers of that period which causes Ada to forcefully write to her mother, saying - “You will not concede me philosophical poetry. Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?”

It was this pursuit of poetical science combined with mathematical agility that would shape her genius and change our world.  Around 1833, when she is 17 years old, she is at a social gathering and witnesses Charles Babbage demonstrating one of his inventions. 

Ada is immediately fascinated by the invention which leads her friend to remark that “Miss Byron, young as she was, understood its working, and saw the great beauty of the invention”.  Her ability to see the beauty in the invention and her intellectual curiosity compelled her to write to Babbage and convince him to be her mentor. 

Under Babbage’s mentorship in 1843 she translated and elaborately annotated an article and in the process she developed an algorithm for the ‘Analytical Engine’ to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.  In respect to the Analytical engine's programming by punch cards, she once wrote: "We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves."

This ‘Enchantress of Numbers’ is a great role model and is celebrated as the first computer programmer.  The second Tuesday of October is dedicated to her and women who follow their passion in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields.

Sources:

Brainpickings

Science Museum

Duke University

 

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