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Jacquard's Web: How a Hand-Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age [Paperback]

James Essinger
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
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Book Description

29 Mar 2007
Jacquard's Web is the story of some of the most ingenious inventors the world has ever known, a fascinating account of how a hand-loom invented in Napoleonic France led to the development of the modern information age. James Essinger, a master story-teller, shows through a series of remarkable and meticulously researched historical connections (spanning two centuries and never investigated before) that the Jacquard loom kick-started a process of scientific evolution which would lead directly to the development of the modern computer.

The invention of Jacquard's loom in 1804 enabled the master silk-weavers of Lyons to weave fabrics 25 times faster than had previously been possible. The device used punched cards, which stored instructions for weaving whatever pattern or design was required; it proved an outstanding success. These cards can very reasonably be described as the world's first computer programmes.

In this engaging and delightful book, James Essinger reveals a plethora of extraordinary links between the nineteenth-century world of weaving and today's computer age: to give just one example, modern computer graphics displays are based on exactly the same principles as those employed in Jacquard's special woven tableaux. Jacquard's Web also introduces some of the most colourful and interesting characters in the history of science and technology: the modest but exceptionally dedicated Jacquard himself, the brilliant but temperamental Victorian polymath Charles Babbage, who dreamt of a cogwheel computer operated using Jacquard cards, and the imaginative and perceptive Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron's only legitimate daughter.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 316 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford; Reprint edition (29 Mar 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0192805789
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192805782
  • Product Dimensions: 1.9 x 13.2 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 349,620 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

More About the Author

Hi everyone! Welcome to my author page on amazon!

My name is James Essinger and I write novels, non-fiction books, magazine articles and also I do some business writing. I also write novels and non-fiction books as a ghost-writer. In addition to this I have written a screenplay about Ada Lovelace called 'Ada's Thinking-Machine', and I am also involved with another writer and a composer in writing a musical about Ada.

I was born in the English Midlands city of Leicester in 1957 and went to Overdale Junior School, Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys and then Lincoln College, Oxford, where I studied English Language and Literature. I have an MA degree from Oxford University.

My surname is German. My late father Ted, who was born in 1922 and died in 2005, was born in Germany in a German Jewish family and came to the UK in July 1939, just six weeks before WW2 broke out. My grandfather Julius (my second Christian name is Julius) was killed in Auschwitz. My grandmother Rega and my uncle Uli also died during WW2. I am deeply sympathetic to the Jewish faith but my own religious position is essentially agnostic. I am a firm believer in the Law of Attraction.

I speak Finnish, French and German as well as English. From 1980 to 1983 I taught English in Finland in three nine-month contracts. I have been a freelance writer and public relations consultant since 1988.

I love writing, reading, chess, great music, cooking, socialising and also gardening though I don't have much time for that.

Writers I love include Shakespeare, Dickens, Conrad and George Orwell. My favourite Shakespeare play is 'As You Like It', my favourite Dickens works are 'A Christmas Carol' and 'Our Mutual Friend', and my favourite Conrad books are 'Heart of Darkness', 'Lord Jim' and 'Nostromo'.

Other books that have made a massive impact on me include DH Lawrence's 'Women in Love', William Styron's 'Sophie's Choice', Anthony Burgess's 'Earthly Powers', William Sutcliffe's 'Are You Experienced?' and Philip Kerr's 'A Philosophical Investigation'.

Movies I especially like include: 'Casablanca', 'Some Like It Hot', Mephisto', 'The Terminator', 'Les Visiteurs', 'Gladiator', 'Sideways' and the marvellous horror film 'Mama'. If I want a good laugh I like watching the movie 'Fat Slags' written by my friend William Osborne.

Poets whose work I love include John Keats, Lord Byron, Shelley, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Philip Larkin and my friend Valerie Cassar, whose recent collection 'Silence of Your Breath' is superb.

I am on Facebook and Twitter.

I am also the principal of Canterbury Literary Agency, which I founded in 2011. www.canterburyliteraryagency.com

Product Description


is a special book that explains more than the connections between loom and computer: it presents a fascinating history of talented and creative people developing and inventing the tools of progress. (Chris Arney, Mathematical Reviews)

From the Author

My book, 'Jacquard's Web,' has been named by 'The Economist' magazine as one of the best five science and technology titles of 2004. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
If you wanted to be part of the scientific and literary set in the London of the 1840s, you would have done just about anything to beg, steal, or borrow an invitation to one of Charles Babbage's famous soirees. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is a STORY about PEOPLE. Jacquard, Babbage and those the author regards as significant to computer development. It does NOT describe their inventions, nor does it make a coherent case for the chain of events it claims.
The author is clearly neither a scientist nor an engineer. Several aspects make this clear - firstly there are many paragraphs of text attempting to describe concepts which could have been expressed more clearly and concisely with a diagram or an equation. Secondly, the actual technical details of the machines in question are never properly described. Furthermore he does not appear to understand, nor even use consistently, the word "automatic". Nor understand the difference between data entry and data processing.

My knowledge of Jacquard is very slight, somewhat better of Babbage. But from a career in electronic engineering, from when computers filled rooms, I directly know of several significant technical errors spread across the 2nd half of the book. Also the key contributions of Bletchley Park are skipped over (inexcusable now the principal details are public knowledge) thus a very Americanised account of computing results.

So if you are from a technical background this book will irritate. However if not the strictly non-technical story-telling obviously does appeal, as other reviews indicate.
One aspect is useful for all, there are extensive quoted sections of the writings of the historical figures.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Loom to Computer 4 Dec 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A very interesting read for anyone interested in the development of machines in general. I am now studying to see if an earlier invention "the witch" which used a peg system rather than punch card can be classed as an even earlier forerunner.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Good, but slightly sketchy at times 27 Aug 2007
The first two thirds of this book is well worth reading, and overall, I agree with the above reviews. The story of Jacquard (or as much of it as is known), and his momentous invention is a very important and overlooked one.

Much of the later sections of the book, however, will be old ground to anyone who's reasonably familiar with the history of information technology. And I found the last chapter - a meandering riff on the future of computing and the fact that, ooh!, we just can't predict it - to be a complete waste of time. It reads very much like something written in a state of 'Oh My God I need 15 more pages before my deadline tomorrow' panic.

The biographical sections of the book (most of it, to be fair), are extremely well done, employing a well-tuned balance of historical context and personal detail. I was disappointed, though, by the passages that attempt to convey exactly how each new device or discovery described actually works. Rather than a step-by-step breakdown, accompanied by a useful diagram or two, there was usually a few sentences referring vaguely to principles or processes which it is assumed the reader must be familiar with.

Overall though, that's a quibble, and Jacquard's Web is an extremely absorbing tale.

Just skirt delicately around the last chapter and head straight to the appendices...
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5.0 out of 5 stars Computers in Victorian times...... 25 May 2007
By Heli
No one could read the first chapter of this book and not finish it. In fact, I've just spent the past two days devouring it from start to finish. It's an entertaining fact-filled romp through the entire history of something that dominates our lives, and that we always think of as entirely modern... and yet the history this book traces goes back nearly 5,000 years.

What I liked best about it was the teasingly thought-provoking idea the author raises: that our computer age could have started over 150 years ago in Victorian England...

According to Jacquard's Web, the Victorian scientist Charles Babbage spent a lifetime building and refining metal calculating cogwheel machines or 'engines' as Babbage called them. The working portions of the Engines he built worked perfectly. As Babbage's friend and colleague Ada Lovelace once said, it was the first time in history that 'wheelwork' had been taught 'to think'. But funding ran out and Babbage died never seeing his calculating engines come to fruition.

What I found so incredibly thought-provoking in this book was that in London in 1991 a perfectly working Difference Engine was built from Charles Babbage's plans and drawings. I have seen the Difference Engine in action myself (as the white-gloved engineer cranks the handle, the stacked columns of cogwheels spiral and coalesce beautifully as they perform their mathematical calculations) but I hadn't realised the significance at the time.

According to the author, James Essinger, if Babbage had found the funding to complete his Engines, computers could have come into widespread use in the nineteenth century. Now if that isn't a thought-provoking idea I don't know what is!
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
By Yossu
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is an amazing story of how a machine that was designed to allow the production of intricately woven material became the forerunner of modern computers.

Jacquard's weaving loom was the first programmable machine, foreshadowing the modern computer. The author explains the background to it, and shows you how the idea was then developed and became the computer industry that is familiar to many of us.

The only weakness in the book was that the thread was taken too far. The last couple of chapters attempted to draw the line from Jacquard's machine into the Internet era, which was a little tenuous. The build up to the modern programmable computer was very strong, but this last bit let it down.

Despite that, the book was fascinating, and an excellent read. Well recommended.
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