The Lang Jacquard Loom: Grandmother of Modern Computing


After 1805 many intricately patterned textiles, like rugs and coverlets, were woven on a Jacquard loom. Prior to 1805, the weaving of intricate pictorial patterns was an extremely complicated process, which required both a weaver and a draw boy (who operated the cords that lifted the pattern warp threads). In his childhood, Joseph-Marie Jacquard had spent time as a draw boy working for his father in the silk industry in Lyon, France. Draw boys sat on the top of the loom picking up individual warp threads, which allowed for the creation of beautiful and intricate patterns.

Jacquard sought a way to eliminate the draw boy and the long, painful days the boys would spend with master weavers. In 1805, Joseph-Marie Jacquard invented what is now known as the Jacquard loom attachment; a device that used a string of pasteboard cards, with holes punched in them, to control the production of each particular pattern.

Immersive Exhibit at Lang Pioneer Village

Lang Pioneer Village Museum, located in Keene Ontario, just east of Peterborough, is home to two of only a handful of Jacquard Looms in North America. One Jacquard loom is an original display loom. The second loom is a fully functioning replica loom that features a restored Jacquard mechanical head and punch card system.

The Jacquard loom at Lang Pioneer Village Museum was purchased by a young man named Samuel Lowry who was born in Warsaw, Ontario in 1862. He worked as a weaver in Warsaw from 1882 to 1888, then moved to Peterborough and established a business at 172 Hunter Street. His main products were carpets, flannel and horse blankets. By 1905, he couldn’t compete with the large woolen mills in the area.

In 1909, Lowry headed west seeking more profitable work. Two looms (the Jacquard and a simple two-shaft loom), and accessories were left as payment to his landlord, Mr. Buller. They remained in the Buller family until 1967 when the looms and Account Books of Samuel Lowry were purchased at an auction sale by weaver Mrs. Dini Moes, who later donated them to Lang Pioneer Village Museum.

In 2004, the Museum hired Master Weaver Didier Schvartz to painstakingly restore the Jacquard loom and second mechanical head. Restoration of the loom and re-creation of a second loom were completed in 2013 and the Museum’s S.W. Lowry Weaver Shop and Jacquard Loom Interpretive Centre was built to display the two looms.

How does the Jacquard loom work?

Weaving is the interlacing of two or more sets of threads, a lengthwise warp thread and crosswise weft thread, usually at a ninety-degree angle. The Jacquard Loom is a specialized loom based on a system of punched cards and hooks, which allows a weaver to produce more complicated and intricate patterns. Power to weave is provided by the weaver.

Every punched card represents a different row in the woven pattern. Where there is a punched hole in the card, needles are allowed to pass through it, raising individual warp threads. There are 272 needles in the head, running perpendicular. If the needles, which are attached to the individual warp threads, go through the card then the appropriate warp thread is raised, creating a shed, or opening, that the weaver can pass the shuttle through. The next treadle is depressed, the cards are rotated and ready for the next row, and one shot of the shuttle weaves the 2 layers together. This changes the weaving pattern of each row from a simple “over, under, over, under, etc.” to a more complex design such as “2 over, 3 under, 1 over, 1 under, 4 over, 1 under, etc.” All the rows together make the pattern.

What does the Jacquard loom have to do with binary computing?

Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace are considered pioneers of modern computing, and both were greatly influenced by the Jacquard loom. Babbage is credited with inventing something called the “Analytical Engine,” which was to be a programmable computing machine, designed to contain a “store” of information (memory) and a “mill” (central processing unit or CPU), where arithmetic could be performed.

The “store” or memory is the same as the Jacquard pattern on punched cards. The mill (or central processing unit) is the same as the Jacquard head, where the information from the punched cards is read. The punch card system uses the principle of hole or no hole in the weaving process. This is the information, or data, for the completed design that will be woven into fabric.

Binary code uses a similar hole/no hole principle with the numbers 1 or 0 (“yes” or “no”) to express data or information and is the building blocks of our modern day computer.

Ada Lovelace was one of the great scientific thinkers of her time. Lovelace received a world-class education that was focused on mathematics, science, and languages. As a young woman, Lovelace saw the Jacquard Loom in operation and was amazed by the punched card system that it used. She wondered: why not use it for other machines as well? That was when she met Charles Babbage.

Ada’s background in languages and knowledge and love for science allowed her to translate a paper in 1842 that was written on the Analytical Engine. In addition to translating the paper, Lovelace included seven notes of her own. In her notes, she explained the scientific workings of the engine, inventing metaphors that could be easily understood. She wrote that “the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard Loom weaves flowers and leaves,” demonstrating the influence of the Jacquard loom on the foundations of modern computing.

Lovelace’s notes also included step-by-step instructions for solving mathematical problems with the machine. Using Bernoulli Numbers, a sequence of rational numbers used frequently by mathematicians in number theory, Lovelace explained how they could be coded and used for the Analytical Machine. In demonstrating this, she has been credited with writing the first computer program ever published.

The Analytical Engine was never built by Babbage, although it was designed in great detail on paper including extensive drawings, plans, specifications, and notes relating to its design. The work done by Babbage and Lovelace has influenced many other scientists on the principles of binary computing to bring us the computers we know today.

The Jacquard Loom’s punched cards (which store pattern instructions, like memory) and the head (which reads the cards and performs the tasks, like a CPU) are the principles upon which computer technology developed.

What does the Jacquard loom have to do with Napoleon?

After the French Revolution, innovations were encouraged and rewarded with government grants. Joseph-Marie Jacquard filed his first patent in 1800 for a loom. His first attempt at simplifying the process of weaving intricate designs without requiring a draw boy, the Jacquard loom, was exhibited at an industrial exhibition at the Louvre in Paris, in 1801 and received the bronze medal for technical innovation.

Jacquard continued to improve and work on his loom, adding the mechanized head and replacing a paper strip with the punched cards. In 1805, in Lyon, the Emperor Napoleon granted the patent for Jacquard’s loom and the Jacquard loom was installed into an apartment in the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers. Jacquard received a lifelong pension and the royalty on each Jacquard sold.

How can I see the Jacquard loom for myself?

Visitors to Lang Pioneer Village Museum can view the authentic S.W. Lowry Jacquard Loom throughout the season in the Museum’s Weaver Shop. The Museum is open 10 am to 4 pm daily from Father’s Day to Labour Day.

Demonstrations on the replica Jacquard loom are performed by volunteers on Saturdays from Father’s Day to Labour Day and during summer and early fall special events. The Museum’s Jacquard Loom Interpretive Centre features a mezzanine which allows visitors to view the workings of the mechanical head up close.

Visit to plan your visit and discover this grandmother of modern computing for yourself!

Travel Info

Video, photography, and written content created in collaboration with the amazing team of staff and volunteers at Lang Pioneer Village Museum, Justen Soule, Impact Communications, and Leif Einarson at Kawarthas Northumberland (Regional Tourism Organization 8)

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