Joseph Marie Jacquard's Innovative Loom

Joseph Marie Jacquard demonstrating his loom. Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Most people probably don’t think of weaving looms as a forerunner of computers. But thanks to French silk weaver Joseph Marie Jacquard, enhancements to automated weaving helped lead to the invention of computer punch cards and the advent of data processing.

Jacquard's Early Life

Joseph Marie Jacquard was born in Lyon, France on the July 7th, 1752 to a master weaver and his wife. When Jacquard was 10 years old, his father died, and the boy inherited two looms, among other holdings.

He went into business for himself and married a woman of some means. But his business failed and Jacquard was forced to become a limeburner at Bresse, while his wife supported herself at Lyon by plaiting straw. 

In 1793, with the French Revolution well underway, Jacquard took part in the unsuccessful defense of Lyon against the troops of the Convention. But afterwards, he served in their ranks on the Rhóne and Loire. After seeing some active service, in which his young son was shot down at his side, Jacquard again returned to Lyon. 

The Jacquard Loom

Back in Lyon, Jacquard was employed in a factory, and used his spare time in constructing his improved loom. In 1801, he exhibited his invention at the industrial exhibition at Paris, and in 1803 he was summoned to Paris to work for the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers. A loom by Jacques de Vaucanson (1709—1782), deposited there, suggested various improvements in his own, which he gradually perfected to its final state.

Joseph Marie Jacquard's invention was an attachment that sat on top of a loom. A series of cards with holes punched in them would rotate through the device. Each hole in the card corresponded with a specific hook on the loom, which served as a command to raise or lower the hook. The position of the hook dictated the pattern of raised and lowered threads, allowing textiles to repeat complex patters with great speed and precision.

Controversy and Legacy

The invention was fiercely opposed by the silk-weavers, who feared that its introduction, owing to the saving of labor, would deprive them of their livelihood. However, the loom's advantages secured its general adoption, and by 1812 there were 11,000 looms in use in France. The loom was declared public property in 1806, and Jacquard was rewarded with a pension and a royalty on each machine. 

Joseph Marie Jacquard died at Oullins (Rhóne) on the 7th of August 1834, and six years later a statue was erected in his honor at Lyon.