Another “close, but no cigar.”

November 10, 2011

The New York Times Science section ran a piece on Tuesday about a project to build a working model of Babbage’s planned analytical engine.  It was a cog and gear driven ‘computer’ that read punch card data and instructions.  The article implies that it was the first such device, and so, the ancestor of all modern digital computers.

Close, but not quite.  Before the Victorian Babbage, there was  the 18th century Jacquard and his loom.

These huge machines read complex instructions on punch cards, made Lyons a dominant force in the silk weaving business, and were recognized by Babbage himself , as well as the future leader of IBM, the firm that put punch cards into the popular mind, as an important precursor and inspiration for the analytical engine.  Not to mention, that the looms actually worked, while the analytical engine never got off the drawing board.

The story is well and comprehensively told in this very fine book:  Jacquard’s Web.

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