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Communications of the ACM


Charles Babbage and the Loom

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.


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