Joseph Marie Jacquard shares the problem of other famous figures whose influence similarly exploded from middle age but never left written materials by their own hand. In Jacquard's case, after years of desperate poverty, this weaver made the ultimate improvement in hand loom technology in the year 1804. Unfortunately, the scant records outside his 15 minutes of fame let biographers slant his story to their purpose. Perhaps, he was a rags to riches example of one of the Great Men of history. James Essinger takes this tack in his book, Jacquard's Web. Alternately, his improvement could have been mere luck of integrating the best of prior engineering improvements to the loom. James Burke's documentary series, Connections, explored those types of serendipitous and demographic factors in the history of science. In a similar vein, understand that this node is also biased toward a narrative regarding Jacquard as embedded in his environ with an eye to his legacy as well.


Lyon resides at the union of the French rivers Rhone and Saone in the middle of the south-west quadrant of the country. It sits in a (geologically) narrow valley between the French Alps and the Languedoc Highlands. The united river runs 170 miles south to the Mediterranean and affords a strong corridor for trade. (Schofield) Following King Louis XI's bounty for Chinese silkworm eggs, only Tours grew mulberry trees. Lyon's merchants initially drew a higher profit from reselling silks imported from Italian city-states. As the economies of scale grew, in addition to the subsidy of every head of state since Louis XI's reign, Every subsequent king subsidized the industry, eventually inducing Lyonnese merchants to establish their own plantations in the 1500s. The French government's close involvement strongly contrasted to the balkanized Italian weavers, who regarded any loom improvements as a corporate secret. After one hundred years, the majority of the city's population contributed to the silk industry. (Essinger)


Imagine a flat array of threads to weave a pattern with in a half meter frame. The simplest style of silk cloth involved using threads of the same color passing over and under these threads. Brocade, the most difficult and expensive, involved weaving another layer above and through those interwoven structural threads, called the warp and weft. Once the embossing weft (that makes the image) is woven through, the weaver uses a shuttle to press the horizontal threads together. That single line is called a pick.

To make an image of a black letter J on a white background, one must begin with the blank white upper border. Then lift the warp threads on the left and right borders and pass through a white warp thread. Lift the center threads and pass through a black weft thread. This repeats for the top of the capital J. The trunk involves the same technique with wider borders. The trick comes in starting the distant tip of the J's curve so the weft goes through the trunk, passes behind and reappears for a pixel width. Choosing which weft threads to lift was typically the 'drawboy's job, whether an apprentice or journeyman. The master would more often handle threading in the warp threads of various colors and tighening this pick with the shuttle later. Rushing at one pick for each two minutes, the best weavers could produce two inches of silk cloth per day on a drawloom. When Jacquard's loom came into general use, a full day's labor resulted in two feet of finished cloth of arbitrary complexity. (Essinger)


Historians identify three close antecedents to Jacquard's loom, by similar design intention. Each was invented by Basile Bouchon, Jean-Baptiste Falcon and Jacques Vaucanson. Burke's documentary puts the trend even earlier, connecting medieval water mills of Cistercian monasteries to Carillions to St Petersburg-style hydraulic automatons & finally to Jacquard's predecessors. The crux of his argument follows the evolution/use of the camshaft. In the case of the mills, the ridges drove lumber equipment. The Carillions function like a music box or player piano but with the energy transferred to churchbells. The axels for this sort of mechanism were either milled down from a larger log or had pegs stuck in the appropriate places. To ensure the pegs/uncut portions matched expectations, the carpenter used a paper template that wrapped around the beam. Bouchon, the son of a fountain craftsman, seized upon this codification of sequence for his invention.

In 1725, Basile Bouchon created an attachment to the loom whereby the chord with the correct weft arrangement was attatched to a rod with a counterweight and these rods protruded beyond the frame. So, the drawboy could advance the paper guide by hand and the rods pushed in by the paper would not be pushed in, keeping the relevant weft threads raised for passing in the proper warp thread. Thus, the complexity of raising the correct weft arrangement could be dealt with when making the template rather than throughout the weaving process.

Three years later, a silk merchant called Falcon admired the advance but sought to improve the shelf life of the paper template by substituting punched cards. These could be joined with tape or wire and be of potentially unlimited length. In practice, of course, the master weaver's invention involved translating one's design to Falcon's card system which could only handle simple designs.

Ten years later, a inspector for Lyon's silk factories, Jacques Vaucanson, had devoted attention to improving the hand loom. During the final years of the 1740s, he experimented with automation for pushing the needles to lift the weft threads. Rather than use freeform paper or cards, Vaucanson reverted to a tubular template. This template sat in a frame that reciprocated in response to a foot pedal and advanced by means of a ratchet.

As Burke emphasizes, here we have the sufficient conditions to unite Falcon's cards and an automatic means of 'reading' them. Vaucanson's experiments simplified the weights and weft lifting, but merely scratched at the necessary design complexity to justify commissioning the custom loom. A customer could switch the punched drums, but that demanded another session with a carpenter after translating the design. Two years later, Joseph Marie was born.

Jean Charles

Joseph Marie Jacquard was born to Antoinette Rive and Jean Charles dit Jacques. Dit here meant 'called,' as Jean's father had received the appelation to distinguish his branch of the Charles line in Lyon. He was a wealthy weaver and property owner. Consider a 1854 description of a weaver's den, pre-1800:

Skeins of silk hang on the walls; wooden pillars, ropes, pulleys, threads, bobbins, shuttles, cylinders, pasteboard pierced with holes, counter-weights and levers play with incessand noise under the hands of the artisan, who is crouching before his web, while his sons assist him at an another loom, which the daughters cause to rise and fall by turns with a fixed mechanical movement, the silk being stretched upon the frame. (Lamartine)
This was Joseph's schoolroom, until his uncle took him under his wing. Though Antoinette bore nine children, as an adult, Joseph's only close, living relative was his sister, Clemence. His mother died when Joseph was ten. Ten years after that, Jean also died.

Joseph Marie

All family property passed to Jacquard; these were a shop with several looms and a quarry. With that inheritance, we lose stable contact with the man. Jacquard may have run the weaving a short while or not. He certainly lived off the principle of his windfall, as he had to sell the quarry and shop. We reencounter him marrying Claudine Boichon in 1778. Next year, she bore them a son, Jean Marie. She retreats with their child to a home included in her dowry that they had not sold. Lamartine's Memoir dispenses with the qualifiers Essinger includes and reports that Jacquard spent the money on experiments and models. Whatever the case, both record his penury and sequence of rude labor including weaving straw hats and burning lime.

While Jacquard reaped the grasshopper's wages, winter came to France in the form of the French Revolution. When Jean Marie was sixteen, a revolutionary band assaulted Lyon. Jacques and the other weavers defended the town, and their clients, against perceived looters. He managed the feat of both surviving and henceforth joining the revolutionaries alongside his son under an assumed identity. While they soldiered on for two years, Jean Marie did not survive a battle near Heidleburg, and Jacques was discharged.


He disappeared again into scut work, but now experiments on the loom are much more likely. Though he carved the pieces himself, Jacquard found a patron called Pernon, for an improvement to the treadle loom. When entered in an 1800 competition, Jacquard was accorded a bronze medal. A similar competition solicited designs in 1803, for weaving fishing nets. Here, Jacquard submitted another prize winning loom. This upstarthood attracted the attention of Napoleon's Minister of the Interior, Lazare Carnot, who personally handed Jacquard the medal.

Later that year, Carnot invited Jacquard to Paris' National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts (where Lazare's son will investigate thermodynamics). Here he encountered/investigated a display of Vaucanson's loom. During the next year or two, he bound the ratcheting frame with Falcon's system of cards. Carnot communicated the success to Napoleon, who organized a formal visit to Jacquard's workshop, again in Lyon. Bonaparte formally granted the patent to the city of Lyon, but offered Jacquard a lifelong stipend and royalty agreement lasting six years. Essinger reports Napoleon's pleasure at Jacquard's humble gratitude (somewhat like Al Capone's brush with the disarming Viktor Lustig).

Most biographies - including Vaucanson's - close with a traditional cautionary anecdote about the pre-Luddite bands who stoned or dumped Jacquard in the river. He, nevertheless, had space to keep working on the loom. Wikipedia reports its significant improvement in the cards in 1815 by Jean Antoine Brenton. They report 11,000 Jacquard looms in France in 1812. Durant gives more ambiguous figures, reporting total looms: 3,500 in 1800 and 10720 in 1808. Jacquard died thirty years after the popularization of his loom.


While one may expect industrializing British textile merchants to have adopted (or stolen) the design quickly, Adam Smith's economic philosophy had penetrated the Whig-led Ministry of All The Talents. They deferred to the idea that the French had a competitive advantage in silk manufacture and lowered the duties on the imported fabric. Ten years later, a parliament committee hearing on silk industry revealed the intended effect occurred, very few silk merchants had been able to compete and moved to other goods.

Jacquard published some improvements to the design until 1812 or so, then Breton. A different evolutionary branch opened with the introduction of the dobby loom. The current distinction between the two stems from a Jacquard system controlling each warp thread and a dobby system controlling a smaller set of perhaps 12-24 groupings of wefts that could be independently used. (Houndstooth or herringbone is appropriate for a dobby.) The advantage was in capital cost: a Jacquard attachment might use 1000 hooks or several thousand in a masterwork showpiece and ten thousand today. Geijer notes the Jacquard mechanism cost £1000 in 1840. However, it later became possible to use both systems on the same loom, perhaps using the dobby for the simple border and another jacquard for a complex interior. (Fletcher)

Lamartine notes hearing of an electric Jacquard loom at the end of his Jacquard chapter. A Sicilian called Gaetan Bonelli filed patents, including in the US, for a system of raising the weft threads with electromagnets. I could find no more mention of his design and electric Jacquard mechanisms did not successfully resurface until 1983 with the electronic jacquard of Bonas Machine company.


As the production of silk cloth exploded, the customer base expanded to incorporate the newly wealthy Bourgeoisie. They often commissioned works that harkened back to old forms of opulence: medieval tapestries. However, the complex brocades to produce them before Jacquard's improvement were unnecessary and the designs were copied directly, often in lower quality materials. (Though there were limits: linen presented a problem, as it had to be continually wet while being woven.) One might consider this the equivalent of a hanging art reproduction, done in cel shading, printed on pulp.

Understand, the depth of color was not an issue. Silk merchants would typically create designs intended to pass as paintings to showcase their skill at competitions. There is a popular portrait of Jacquard that Babbage himself bought and used as a party centerpiece. He challenged invitees to guess the 'artist' who created it. Even so, the fashions verged between medieval elements and increasingly busy patterns, in what is called the Arts and Crafts Movement. High society critics presaged Walter Benjamin's observations about the danger reproduction posed to authentic art. These concerns would prompt pioneers to invent Art Noveau designs.


As the machine's design improved and cost of investment came down, drawboys and then individual masters were no longer needed. While Ludd's revolt of 1813 turned against a variety of textile manufacturers, Lyonnese silk workers formed a similar revolt in 1831. Canuts - weavers who weren't merchants - demanded a price floor on silk and organized a strike of several hundred. Napoleonic law forebade strikes and unions, so the national guard was dispatched to resolve the issue. Many guardsmen, however, sympathized with the Canuts and joined them in occupying the city and looting the police armory, though not the city in general. The 'riot' ennervated the Chamber of Deputies to dispatch an army division to settle the issue. Though the revolt with national guard provoked a firefight leaving 600 dead, the army retook Lyon without conflict and without a fixed price. Unsurprisingly, the lyonnese canuts revolted twice more before 1850.

Silk's position as king of fabric was endangered by industrial success and expanded markets. On one hand, cotton overtook silk with improvements in harvesting and spinning. On the other, the huge demand in silk thread encouraged less diligent merchants into the breeding market. These usually kept the silkworms in untenably humid conditions or fed them diseased mulberry leaves. The population shrank and Louis Pasteur was summoned to investigate. His experiences will influence his understanding of the contagation and quarantine. The century closed with another injury: strong artificial dyes. One of silk's strengths came from its proclivity for accepting natural dyes. With William Perkin's invention of aniline dyes, the concentrations were made strong enough to achieve the same vivid colors with lower quality fabrics. One could print an image on top of a fabric rather than sew in the design. This confluence likely diminished the necessity of the Jacquard mechanism in the textile industry at large.

Design Patterns

The core idea, of course, of an interpreter has no limitation to only looms. Burke notes that shipwrights took up the technique to guide riveting machines. In line with his conceit, those were used to build steamships like White Star's Olympic and bring across thousands of immigrants to america to ellis island. As the 1880 census took eight years to complete, Herman Hollerith's tabulation of punched cards - shortening the period to a single year - was a godsend. While census clerks had used an unbroken paper roll since the 1870 census, Hollerith turned to punched cards to facilitate referencing individual entries. Hollerith cites the tickets punched on trains as inspiration, but his brother worked in the silk industry so Jacquard's system may have been in his thoughts nonetheless.

The Babbage-Jacquard connection is the more often cited utilization. Given Babbage's purchase of the Jacquard 'painting,' he was clearly interested in the application of external storage to his engine. The cards he would have utilized, however, were more diverse than those used on looms. Babbage planned to have four types of cards: one for an operation to perform, one to represent numbers, one as a variable containing the location of the value in the store, and a final type to induce the computing mill to perform a 'combination,' ie repeat the previous operation some number of times. Babbage chose cards as an input mechanism to separate human error from setting the machine, lest a gear be left halfway between two numbers.

Non plus ultra

One may regard Joseph Marie's contribution as simplistic or inspired. Falcon had the significant conception to use cards in his loom and his successor automated the process as no other had done. But, Vaucanson did not 'complete' the evolution of the drawloom, nor did any other who noticed both prototypes at the National Conservatory. Like the punchline to an anecdote about the inevitablity of Columbus' voyage goes, 'once one has seen the way, anyone can do it.' About Jacquard outside that period of national fame, there is little hard evidence and much invented narrative. Suffice that he embodied a Horatio Algier-esque prodigal son who misspent wealth and won it back. However, as with most recipients of instant prominence and wealth, he did not much adjust. Jacques lived quietly off his stipend rather than stay a weaver. Even biased Lamartine, who spent several pages of the memoir describing how eliminating the soul crushing drudgery of archaic weaving was Jacquard's burning passion, has little good to say about Jacques the man. He notes that Jacques would often only talk about looms or steer the conversation to them. His contemporaries pigeonholed him as 'one automaton who invented another.'

Works Cited

  • Essinger, James. Jacquard's Web: How a hand loom led to the birth of the information age. Oxford University Press 2004.
  • Burke, James. Connections; "Faith and Numbers." BBC 1978.
  • Geijer, Agnes. A History of Textile Art.Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications 1979.
  • Lamartine, Alphonse de-. Memoirs of Celebrated Characters, vol II. Harper bros 1854.
  • i programmer, 'Herman Hollerith and the punch card'. ed Fairhead, Harry? 29 Feb 2012.
  • Cwkmail, et al. Wikipedia, 'Joseph Marie Jacquard'. acc: 25 Aug 12.
  • Fletcher, Garth. 'Some Introductory Notes Concerning Jacquard Technology'. 2005
  • Durant, Will & Ariel. The Story of Civilization: vol 11, The Age of Napoleon. Simon & Schuster, 1975.
  • Schofield, Robert E. The World Book Encyclopedia; 'Jacquard, Joseph-Marie' ; 'Lyon'. Field Enterprises Educational Corporation 1976.

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