Joseph-Marie Jacquard

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.
Theodore Roosevelt

Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752-1834)
Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752-1834)

Joseph-Marie Jacquard was not the inventor of the programmable loom, as it is generally acknowledged, in fact, he created an attachment to the loom, which played a very important role not only in the textile industry but also in the development of other programmable machines, such as computers, for example, the Analytical Engine of Charles Babbage and tabulating machine of Hollerith.

Jacquard started seeking an improvement in the draw loom at the end of the 1770s while working as a master weaver and silk merchant in Lyon. His work was interrupted by a number of dubious entrepreneurial investments and the Revolution. It was probably in 1799 when he decided to return to the automation of weaving, an occupation, which will make his name unforgettable.

In July 1800 Joseph Jacquard applied for his first patent—a treadle loom, then a loom to weave fishing nets in 1803, and starting in 1804, the Jacquard loom, which would weave patterned silk automatically. Jacquard took out a patent on his first loom on 23 December 1800, for a machine designed to replace the draw-boy in the manufacture of figured fabrics. The first looms of Jacquard were unsuccessful, however, not only because were not operating well, but also for strong opposition from the silk weavers. When in 1801, after a successful exposition in Paris (he was awarded a bronze medal for the loom by the French government), Jacquard exhibited his first loom in Lyon, the weavers, thinking their bread and butter endangered by the new machine, mobbed the inventor and broke up his invention. Three times life of Jacquard was threatened by fanatics. Jacquard describes the occurrence himself—”The iron was sold for old iron, the wood for fuel, while I was delivered over to universal ignominy.”

Luckily, Jacquard’s achievement came to the knowledge of the Prefect of the Department, he was summoned before that functionary, and, on his explanation of the working of the machine, a report on the subject was forwarded to Emperor Napoleon. The inventor was summoned to Paris with his machine and brought into the presence of the Emperor, who received him with consideration due to his genius. The interview lasted two hours, during which Jacquard, placed at his ease by the Emperor’s affability, explained to him the improvements which he proposed to make in the looms for weaving figured goods. The result was, that he was provided with apartments in the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers, where he had the use of the workshop during his stay, and was provided with a suitable allowance for his maintenance.

It is out of the question, that Jacquard was informed about the earlier attempts of his fellow citizens Basile Bouchon, Jean Falcon, and Jacques de Vaucanson to create an automated loom. While in Paris, he examined the loom of Vaucanson in the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers and suggested various improvements of his own, which he gradually perfected to its final state.

An old Jacquard loom
An old Jacquard loom

One of the first improvements of Jacquard was to eliminate the paper strip from Vaucanson’s mechanism and to return to Falcon’s chain of punched cards. Then, he tried to avoid the expensive metal cylinders of Vaucanson. In fact, the term Jacquard loom is a misnomer, actually Jacquard’s invented an attachment (head), that adapts to a great many types of looms, that allow the weaving machine to create the intricate patterns often seen in Jacquard weaving. Thus any loom that uses the attachment is called a Jacquard loom.

Each position in the punched card of the loom corresponds to a hook, which can either be raised or stopped dependent on whether the hole is punched out of the card or the card is solid. The hook raises or lowers the harness, which carries and guides the warp thread so that the weft will either lie above or below it. The sequence of raised and lowered threads is what creates the pattern. Each hook can be connected via the harness to a number of threads, allowing more than one repeat of a pattern. For example, a loom with a 500-hook head might have four threads connected to each hook, resulting in a fabric that is 2000 warp ends wide with four repeats of the weave going across.

In April 1805 the Emperor and Empress Josephine visited Lyon, and during their tour, they viewed Jacquard’s new loom, and Napoleon exclaimed for Jacquard here is a man of vast talent and industry who is happy with so little. Jacquard granted the patent for Jacquard’s loom to the city of Lyon as public property. In return, Jacquard received a lifelong pension of 3000 francs, a huge sum for the time. Moreover, he received a royalty of 50 francs for each loom that was bought and used during the period of six years. This was a generous attitude towards the inventor and made him rich. By 1812 there were some 11000 Jacquard looms in use in France and despite energetic French efforts to keep the technology secret, they were also beginning to appear in other countries.

Jacquard’s genius obviously lay not in originating the revolutionary ideas behind his loom, but in building upon the work of previous innovators, bringing their ideas together, adding his own insights, and solving a variety of practical engineering problems, to create an automatic loom that was fast, reliable and most importantly—commercially viable. Jacquard’s loom revolutionized the speed at which decorated silk fabrics could be woven. Using the Jacquard loom, a skilled weaver could produce two feet of decorated silk fabric per day, compared with one inch per day that could be produced by a skilled two-man draw loom team.

The modern Jacquard looms are using image scanners, allowing any visual image to be woven to be inputted into the loom. The scanner, in turn, is linked to a computer, that converts the image into pixels in a program, which is used to control the hooks that lift the correct warp threads to form the image during the weaving process.

Biography of Joseph-Marie Jacquard

Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752-1834)
Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752-1834)

Joseph-Marie Charles (known as Jacquard after the nickname of his family) was born on 7 July 1752, in the Lyons parish of St Nizier, France. He was the fifth of nine children in the conservative Catholic family of Jean Charles (1724-1772) (a son of Bartholomew Charles from Lyon’s Couzon-Au-Mont d’Or suburb), a master weaver of brocaded fabrics, and his wife, Antoinette Rive, who worked as a pattern reader. Of the nine children, only Joseph and his sister Clémence (born 7 Nov 1747) survived to adulthood.

Like the sons of many Lyons weavers, Joseph-Marie did not go to school, because his father needed him to perform odd jobs in the workshop. He learned to read as a thirteen-year-old boy from his brother-in-law Jean-Marie Barret (who married Clémence in Jan 1765), a cultured man (a bookseller and printer), who also introduced Joseph to learned societies and scholars.

Antoinette Rive died on 16 July 1762, and after her end, the family slid into poverty. Initially, Joseph worked in his father’s workshop, but when he was of age to learn a trade, his father placed him with a book binder. An old clerk, who made up the master’s accounts, gave him some lessons in mathematics. Joseph very shortly began to display a remarkable turn for mechanics, and some of his contrivances quite astonished the old clerk, who advised his father to put him to some other trade, in which his peculiar abilities might have better scope than in bookbinding. Thus Joseph was accordingly put apprentice to a cutler; but was so badly treated by his master, that he shortly afterward left his employment, on which he was placed with a type-founder.

Surprisingly, when Jean Charles died in 1772, Joseph inherited more assets than anyone expected: his father’s apartment, the workshop with two looms, as well as some other real estate (a vineyard and quarry). In 1778, he listed his occupations as a master weaver and silk merchant, and apparently, at that time he started seeking an improvement in the draw loom. In the same year (26 July 1778) he married the rich widow Claudine Boichon (1751-14 July 1825). Their only son, Jean-Marie, was born in April 1779. In the next few years, however, Joseph took part in a number of dubious entrepreneurial investments and soon fell deeply into debt and was brought to court, losing his inheritance and part of his wife’s property. So in 1783, he slid again into poverty. Claudine stayed with their son in Lyon, working in a straw-hat factory, while Joseph tried his luck in other places as a lime-burner, a laborer in a plaster quarry, etc., before to return in Lyon at the end of the 1780s. Back in Lyon, Joseph prosecuted his improvement in the draw loom for the better manufacture of figured fabrics, and he brought out his contrivance for selecting the warp threads, which, when added to the loom, superseded the services of a draw-boy. The adoption of this machine was slow but steady, and ten years after its introduction, many of them were found at work in Lyon.

Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752-1834)
Joseph-Marie Jacquard

Unfortunately, Jacquard’s pursuits were rudely interrupted by the Revolution, and in 1793, he and his son took part in the unsuccessful defense of Lyon against the troops of the Convention, and when the city fell, the two fled together, then adopted false names and joined the Revolutionary army. After seeing some active service in the Army of the Rhine, where Joseph rose to the rank of sergeant, in 1797 Jean-Marie was shot down in a battle, and his father returned to Lyon in 1798, losing again the plot of his life. After a stay in the hospital, he worked at various odd jobs—repairing looms, weaving, bleaching straw hats, driving horse-drawn carts, etc. It was probably in 1799 when he decided to return to the automation of weaving, an occupation, which will make his name unforgettable.

After the patent application of Jacquard loom in 1800, it took quite a few years to achieve success. In 1801, the loom was exhibited at the Exposition des produits de l’industrie française in Paris, where he was awarded a bronze medal. In 1803 Jacquard was summoned to Paris and attached to the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers. A loom by Jacques de Vaucanson on display there suggested various improvements in his own, which he gradually perfected to its final state. The loom was declared public property in 1805, and Jacquard was rewarded with a pension and a royalty on each machine. Although his invention was fiercely opposed by the silk weavers, who feared that its introduction, owing to the saving of labor, would deprive them of their livelihood, its advantages secured its general adoption. Initially, a few Jacquard looms were sold because of problems with the punched card mechanism. Only after 1815 (once Jean Antoine Breton had solved the problems with the punched card mechanism), did sales of looms increase.

In 1819 Jacquard was awarded by the Government a gold medal and Cross of the Legion of Honor, for the invention of the automatic punched-card loom.

At the beginning of the 1820s, Joseph-Marie Jacquard retired to the pretty village of Oullins, a few miles from Lyons, where he enjoyed a prosperous rural life, even herding sheep. He died peacefully at Oullins, on 7 August 1834, aged 82.