Sign In

Communications of the ACM


Charles Babbage and the Loom

View as: Print Mobile App Share:
Herbert Bruderer

Charles Babbage's analytical engine (see Fig. 1), which already provided for conditional branching, is regarded as the ancestor of the modern-day computer. He wanted to control his programmable machine with punched cards similar to the automatic looms from France.


Fig. 1: Babbage's analytical engine. In 1834, English mathematician Charles Babbage began with the development of this programmable calculating machine. However, only a small part was realized. This figure shows a section of the digital calculating unit and the printer unit.
Credit: Science Museum, London/Science & Society Picture Library


Punched tapes or punched cards joined to tapes simplified work on looms (pattern control). Among the pioneers were Basile Bouchon (see Fig. 2), Jean-Baptiste Falcon (see Fig. 3), and Joseph-Marie Jacquard (see Fig. 4). Their achievements are on view in the Musée des arts et métiers in Paris.

Fig. 2: The loom of Basile Bouchon (1725).
This semiautomatic loom (functional model) is punched tape-controlled.
Credit: Sylvain Pelly/Musée des arts et métiers/Cnam, Paris


Fig. 3: The loom of Jean-Baptiste Falcon (1728).
This semiautomatic loom (functional model) is punched card controlled, and the punched cards are bound together.
Credit: Sylvain Pelly/Musée des arts et métiers/Cnam, Paris


Fig. 4: The loom of Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1804).
This fully automatic loom (functional model) is punched card controlled.
The concatenated cardboard cards were punched according to the required pattern.
Credit: Studio Cnam/Musée des arts et métiers/Cnam, Paris


The upsurge of punched card machines began in 1890 with the American census (Herman Hollerith). Punch card machines (see Fig. 5) were in use until the 1980s.

Fig. 5: Punched card machine. The system designed by Herman Hollerith consisted of three parts: a sorting machine, a counting machine, and a card punch.
Credit: Museo nazionale della scienza e della tecnologia "Leonardo da Vinci", Milan



Herbert Bruderer is a retired lecturer in didactics of computer science at ETH Zurich. More recently, he has been an historian of technology., herbert.bruderer@bluewin.


No entries found

Sign In for Full Access
» Forgot Password? » Create an ACM Web Account