Updated: Oct 21, 2020
The beating heart of your computer is a wooden loom designed over two hundred years ago.
Imagine this article as a 1950s educational cartoon. A mad scientist with crazy hair and a white coat opening up a computer to reveal a vast wooden loom inside – crashing and banging, dancing back and forth in rhythmic chaos while churning out miles of perfectly finished, beautifully patterned fabric. And all the while, the oblivious operator sits on it, reading a newspaper. The particular loom in question is the 15-foot-high, 1804 Jacquard Power Loom. And the reason it is inside your computer is that this machine used early programming and the same binary language as a modern computer.
Binary is an ON or OFF counting system, and the programming for the loom was created through a system of punchcards, a technology that was still commonplace in computing in the late 20th century. The binary language was created using varying patterns of holes punched in a grid onto each card and mirrored in the 0s and 1s that make up modern binary code creating the words you are reading. As each card was passed through the loom (often, several thousand cards per design), the software determined which threads to move and which to ignore for that specific pattern. The cards were linked and fed into the loom as a ‘tape,” resulting in an identical pattern woven into fabric every time. Before the Jacquard loom, weaving anything but a rudimentary pattern was almost impossible to achieve by hand. The loom revolutionized the fabric industry. Fast, accurate mass production meant fabric prices plummeted. For the first time, high quality patterned cloth was available to the ordinary person. This early programming demonstrated how the binary language could be so elegantly and effectively used to create an automation process that was more complex, faster, and more precise than anything that preceded it. As such, it became quickly apparent this programable software could have applications in other industries. Of course, our modern computers are significantly more sophisticated than the Jacquard loom. Still, the operational principles for both are, in some ways at least, the same. So, next time you throw on your favorite outfit by Moschino, take a moment to appreciate the wonders of math.