February 2022

The loom: programming patterns on a path to computing

In naming Loomery we chose the double-o spelling, like a loom, rather than Lumary, with its connection to light and luminaries. We loved the association with industry, production, fabric and weaving. Hand crafted, yet industrialised. Building technology often feels like cutting cloth or creating a tapestry.

It was only after founding Loomery that we discovered the importance of the loom to the history of computing.

The Jacquard Loom - a revolutionary invention

Historically a loom needed two people to operate: a weaver and a ‘draw boy’, to handle the thread. The work was slow and labour-intensive and complex patterns were difficult to accomplish.

In the early 1800s, a French weaver and merchant called Joseph-Marie Jacquard changed that. His Jacquard machine, when attached to a loom, made it possible for complex and detailed patterns to be manufactured by unskilled workers in a fraction of the time it took previously. It revolutionised how patterned cloth could be woven.

Punch cards weaving patterns

The key to the success of Jacquard's invention was its use of interchangeable cards, onto which small holes were punched, which held instructions for weaving a pattern.

With these punch cards, Jacquard looms could quickly reproduce any pattern a designer could think up, and replicate it over and over again.

Series of punch cards on the Jacquard hand loom - Science Museum Group Collection

From Jacquard to Babbage to Lovelace… to IBM

Jacquard's invention transformed patterned cloth production, but it also represented a revolution in human-machine interaction in its use of binary code—either punched hole or no punched hole—to instruct a machine to carry out an automated process.

These interchangeable punch cards inspired the design of early computers. Charles Babbage knew of Jacquard machines and planned to use cards to store programs in his Analytical Engine. Fellow mathematician Ada Lovelace, who proposed the idea of what we now know as computer programming, observed:

The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves. Ada Lovelace, mathematician (1843)

In the late 19th century, Herman Hollerith took the idea of using punched cards to store information a step further when he created a punched card tabulating machine which he used to input data for the 1890 U.S. Census. Hollerith’s Tabulating Machine Company would later adopt the name International Business Machines; IBM for short.

Weaving and coding, skilled endeavours

Jacquard’s breakthrough meant that labourers without the craft skills of a weaver could create equally complex and beautiful products for a fraction of the price.

We can’t help but see parallels to the democratisation of software creation brought about by no-code tools. If weaving by hand is akin to writing in the command line, and software engineers are the skilled operators of early looms, then could no-code tooling be the leap forward represented by Jacquard?

We believe it might be. And while Loom technology didn’t stop improving with Jacquard’s invention it had a sizeable impact on society, and how productive an ‘unskilled’ worker could be.

The punch-cards of the 1800s are the templates and pre-built widgets of Webflow and Adalo. No-code tools are enabling those without deep engineering skills to create complex digital products themselves today.

Loomery: programming for the next generation

Without the Jacquard loom there may have been no computers at all… and there would certainly be no Loomery!

Sometimes the direction of travel in technology is very clear, but as we enter 2022 there are lots of areas where the future feels uncertain: from crypto, to cars, to VR. 

The importance of the Jacquard loom to the history of computing shows innovation comes from unexpected places, and impacts society in surprising ways. Will tomorrow’s digital world be the metaverse Zuckerburg predicts? Or will advances in science and industry change our direction once again?

Whatever happens we think it’s a good bet to back the tools which make creating easier, be it cloth or code, and we’ll continue to do just that.

Article reference: Science+Industry Museum

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