Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 2.

Today, we see how wool-weaving led us into the computer age. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Weaving a pattern into cloth isn't such an easy matter. Different shuttles -- carrying the weft strands -- have to be threaded through the warp strands in a precise order to give the weave its pattern. In 1805 the French textile engineer Jacquard invented a remarkable scheme for interweaving the strands in the right sequence without using a human operator. He passed a chain of cards, with holes punched in them, in front of a mechanism that reached through the holes to pick up threads. The Jacquard loom was a fine success, and the idea's still used in modern textile mills.

Five years after Jaquard's invention, a young man named Charles Babbage enrolled in Cambridge University to study mathematics and mechanics. His progress was astonishing. In 1816, when he was only 25, he was made a fellow of the Royal Society for his work on calculating machines and methods. In 1834 he went a step beyond calculators and conceived a machine that would do much more. He conceived a machine that could be told how to carry out a sequence of related calculations. He conceived of programmable computation. He never completely finished building this "analytical engine," as he called it, but he set us on the road to today's digital computer.

Now what does this have to do with weaving? Well, the key to operating any computer lies in transmitting sequences of on-off commands. Babbage used Jacquard-style punched cards to do this. The presence or absence of a hole communicated a simple on-off command to the machine. And until only very recently, we still used punched cards to transmit our instructions to computers.

Good ideas turn and change and flow. So the genius of the textile engineer Jacquard and of the 19th-century inventor Babbage is alive today in our high-speed digital computers -- changing and turning, but still having a hand in revolutionizing our lives 150 years later.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Cardwell, D.S.L., Turning Points in Western Technology. pp. 119-121.

This program has been rewritten as Episode 1145.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode