Silk to Silicon:   How French Weaving Created Computer Commands

Truth, as usual, is always stranger than fiction. The machines that wove all those lovely French silks which were so often smuggled into England during the war with Napoleon did indeed provide the key to issuing commands to computers shortly after the Regency. This same method continued in use for several decades, only falling out of favor at the end of the last century.

How holes made patterned silks and talked to computers …

At the turn of the nineteenth century, a Frenchman, Joseph Marie Jacquard, began to tinker with various textile design inventions which had been developed by other Frenchmen in the previous century. Jacquard’s father had left him his textile looms and workshop when he had died many years before, though Jacquard had squandered his assets. By 1800, he was trying to find new methods of weaving which might improve his fortunes. By 1801, Jacquard felt he had an invention ready to be seen and exhibited at that year’s industrial exhibition in Paris, which was sponsored by the French government. Within a couple of years, he was invited to join the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (the French Conservatory of Arts and Crafts), which was based in Paris. While studying the collections of the Conservatoire in Paris, he came across a textile loom which had been designed by Jacques de Vaucanson, whose bequest had led to the founding of the institution. Vaucanson’s loom design gave Jacquard new ideas on how to improve his own loom. The perfected Jacquard loom used a series of cards, each punched with a pattern of holes, which were strung together in a particular order. This set of punched cards was then able to control the pattern woven into the cloth. The holes and solid spaces in the cards functioned rather like binary code, controlling the hooks which raise and lower the warp threads of the cloth, by determining whether each warp hook should be up or down for that pass of the shuttle. Thus, the holes in the cards informed the loom as to whether the weft threads would pass over or under a given warp thread as the weaving progressed. With this system, complex and intricate patterns could be quickly and easily woven into hundreds of yards of silk damasks and brocades. New patterns could be just as easily woven on the same loom by simply changing out the punch-card set.

Silk weavers were vehemently opposed to this new loom operating system when it was first introduced, since it essentially automated the weaving process. They all assumed this advanced, labor-saving system would cost many weavers their jobs. In fact, it created many more jobs in the silk weaving industry, as this more detailed and intricately woven patterned silk quickly became all the rage throughout Europe. Demand for these exquisite silks skyrocketed, requiring more looms and more weavers to run them. The punch-card loom system was declared French public property in 1806, at which time Jacquard was awarded a pension and collected a royalty on each machine constructed. By 1812, records show there were at least 11,000 Jacquard looms in use across France and French silks were already the height of fashion and elegance across Europe. It was these Jacquard-woven silks which were most commonly smuggled into England during the Napoleonic Wars in the early years of the Regency. Knowledge of the design of the punch-card controlled loom itself was also eventually smuggled out of France.

The design details of the Jacquard loom were known in England by the late 1820s, though such looms were not immediately built and put into production. Some English inventors and engineers studied the plans and found ways to further improve them. In fact, in 1835, a Mr. W. Rooke, of Hope Town, Bethnal Green, received an award from the Royal Society of Arts when he sent them a model for an improvement he proposed for the punch-card controlled loom. It was at about this same time that Charles Babbage was developing his next generation computer, the Analytical Engine. This new machine was intended to be a major advance over his previous mechanical calculator, the Difference Engine. Babbage had learned about the punch-card concept and decided that he could make use of punch-cards to provide input to his new computing machine. It is curious that, by this time, there had been a few different machines invented which were similar to the modern-day typewriter, many of which included letter, and in some cases, number keys which could be pressed to place a character on a sheet of paper. At least some of those machines would have been known in England, but there is no evidence that Babbage considered the idea of a keyboard input system for his Analytical Engine. He apparently felt that the punch-card system was the most reliable input method available to him at that time.

It was for the Analytical Engine that the very first computer program was written, by Ada, Countess of Lovelace, the only daughter of Lord Byron and his wife, the former Anne Isabella Milbanke. Lady Lovelace wrote a program which was a detailed set of instructions on how the Analytical Engine could be used to calculate Bernoulli Numbers. That set of instructions would have been fed into the Analytical Engine by a series of punched cards, based on those which controlled Jacquard looms. This set of punch cards would have operated a series of small levers inside the machine, that would turn a series of "figure wheels." Each hole would move a specific lever while a blank space would leave the lever in place. When the complete punch card set had been run though the machine, the final positions of all the "figure wheels" would then display the results of the calculations. Unfortunately, due to lack of government backing and financial support, as well as a series of conflicts with his chief engineer, Babbage was not able to complete the Analytical Engine in his lifetime. And sadly, though Ada Lovelace was able to publish her computer program instruction set, she died a few short years later, never knowing that it would have performed exactly as she had intended.

Babbage’s work was almost lost to history for many decades, though punch cards were used throughout the latter nineteenth century and into the early twentieth to provide input for a number of different mechanical counting and tallying machines, as well as crank organs and music boxes. When modern computers were essentially re-invented, nearly a full century after Babbage had begun his design for the Analytical Engine, a number of his principles were employed, including the use of punch cards to feed information into the machines. Punch cards remained the primary means by which humans gave orders to computers well into the 1980s. It is again curious that, even when the keypunch machine was introduced earlier in the twentieth century, it was used to punch holes in cards which were then fed into the computers. It was not until the last decades of the twentieth century that keyboards were connected directly to computers and computer punch cards were finally made obsolete.

And now you know how the manufacture of those elegant and luxurious French silks which our Regency ancestors so enjoyed, legally or illegally, inspired the earliest concepts of computer communication. If Monsieur Jacquard had not perfected the use of the punch card set for weaving silk in the early nineteenth century, if Charles Babbage had not selected the punch-card method of communicating with his Analytical Engine in the mid-nineteenth century, and if computer designers of the early twentieth century had not adopted that method, would computers have been successfully developed on a commercial scale as early as they were, would the Internet be as advanced as it is now? Perhaps we owe a great debt to all those fashionable, silk-swathed ladies and all those determined smugglers who kept them so swathed.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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14 Responses to Silk to Silicon:   How French Weaving Created Computer Commands

  1. Dear Kat.
    This is very interesting. I know about the jacquard loom but did not realize that is was exclusive to France for so long. This was another ‘differentiator’ between the French and British fabrics which I will be glad to make use of. Thank you!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I seem to recall that the details of the Jacquard loom were smuggled out of France to the US, and probably Canada, earlier than they made it to England. But I wonder if the English did not care, even if they had the knowledge sooner, because they were much more focused on cotton, not to mention there was no way they could compete with smuggled French silks, so why bother?

      There were silk weavers, of Huguenot decent, in Spitalfields, but as far as I know, they wove mostly ribbons, for which they had a ready local market. I am not sure if they avoided full lengths of silk cloth because of the higher cost of the looms or if they simply did not want to bother trying to compete with those French silk smugglers.


  2. From what I found, it looks as if at least some broadloom silk was woven in Spitalfields, by the men. The ribbons were mostly woven by women. The Napoleonic wars reduced the amount of French silk that could be smuggled into England so competition was reduced during that time.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      That men wove whole cloth while women, and probably children, wove ribbon, makes sense. What I know about the Spitalfields silk weaving industry I have gleaned here and there while researching peripheral topics, so I am by no means an expert on that subject.

      However, I am not so sure about the war with Boney inhibiting smuggling. My understanding was that it increased it, since there was no legitimate trade allowed, and French silks were highly sought after during that period, regardless of their source. I will certainly have to devote some time to research on that front.

      Thanks for all this tasty food for thought!


  3. I think it depends on whom you read!
    My gggggfr kept an agent in Paris throughout the war so he was presumably shipping silks, other cloth, shapes etc. I read that after 1815, French silks again flooded the British market, effectively demolishing the last of the London silk industry. Centres like Coventry (where I have maternal ancestors who were silk-weavers) carried on with more success it seems.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      This is very interesting. During the course of my research into French porcelain and paper-hangings, I discovered they were more heavily smuggled while the war was ongoing, and dropped off after it was over, as the legitimate trade took over. I had just assumed that the same thing happened to silk. Clearly, one should not sweep all commodities with one brush.


  4. I think I need to do more research into this. I will post another comment if I find anything conclusive. I have a couple of books on smuggling during this time, so maybe that would be another angle to check out. One thing I do know is that between 1786 and 1795 Louis B was importing French cloth such as Gobelin scarlet. The fact that it was imported is reflected in the price – between 36/- and 42/- a yard.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Ouch!!!! That is really pricey, even for silk! But then, Gobelin scarlet was legendary, so it was probably worth it, especially if it was for Prinny!


  5. Actually it must have been wool because it was used for hunting ‘pink’ coats

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      That makes sense. Wool is really tricky to dye, though if you do it right, it takes color beautifully. And one of the reasons Gobelin scarlet was so expensive was that it was the most color-fast red known until the second half of the nineteenth century, when the coal-tar-based aniline dyes came into use.

      The English hunting season went from the fall right through the winter, and some of those who rode to hounds were in the saddle rain, snow or shine. They would definitely want hunting coats that did not bleed red all over them when they got wet.


  6. Sarah Waldock says:

    You learn something every day! I knew about the Jaquard looms leading to Ada Lovelace, the first programmer; whom I was never sure when I was programming cobol on punchcards if I venerated or detested, lol…. but the Gobelin Scarlet wool for hunting coats is a new one on me, though it makes sense. this is a fascinating thread. Red has always been expensive, whether from murex, grain or kermes for the best scarlets. As I understand it, Gobelin red is derived from cochineal – yet another bug – with some rather fancy mordanting work?

    I’m looking forward to any research you can manage, Charles, on that smuggling issue too.
    Many thanks

  7. Kathryn Kane says:

    For those of you who would like to know more about the progress of punch cards from Jacquard’s looms to the UNIVAC and beyond, I recommend an informative and entertaining read. The book is Jacquard’s Web: How a Hand Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age, by James Essinger. It is a fascinating tale of the history of the modern computer, into which is woven the evolution of the use of punched cards from the eighteenth through the twentieth century.

    One of the things which surprised me was that, though Herman Hollerith was probably vaguely aware of the work of Charles Babbage, he did not get the idea of using punch cards from Babbage. Rather, he got it from visiting a textile mill, owned by his brother-in-law, where he saw Jacquard looms in operation. It was from that visit that he decided to use punch cards for information input when he invented his ground-breaking tablulating machines. And those tabulating machines were the foundations of the company we know as IBM today.

    If you enjoy learning the history of the evolution of things, you will enjoy this book.



  8. A quick mention on the silk ribbons in spitalfields, female silk weavers with their own guild were there in the late middle ages making ribbons and ‘fancy goods’ which I presume were limited size items like scarves and kerchiefs. I just read the reblog of this on the Beau Monde which reminded me.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I did not know the female silk weavers had their own guild that early. How very progressive of them! 🙂

      My take on “fancy goods” is much the same as yours. I believe such goods were small items with complex color and/or weave patterns which were used as accents for garments and other items.


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