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Jacquard's Web: How a Hand-Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age Hardcover – December 1, 2004

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 302 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; First Edition edition (December 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0192805770
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192805775
  • Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 1.1 x 5.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #436,859 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Doron Swade's Difference Engine (2001) recounted the computer's conceptual origin with Charles Babbage, who, as readers discover from Essinger, borrowed from the technology of silk weaving a means of programming his calculating machine. It was the punched card, familiar in computer rooms until the 1960s and which continues a vestigial existence in the punch-card ballot. Its inventor in 1804? Joseph-Marie Jacquard of Lyons, France. Essinger bolsters Jacquard's thin but eventful biography by outlining the subsequent applications of his idea. In addition to clarifying the technical significance of the punched card, Essinger engagingly introduces the personalities-- Babbage, of course, but Lord Byron's daughter, Ada, and IBM chief Thomas Watson, too--whose lives crossed with Jacquard's punched card. Following Babbage's failure, Essinger relates, the punched card was improved on by Herman Hollerith, inventor of automatic tabulating machines, and by Howard Aiken, developer of arguably the first general-purpose computer, the Harvard Mark I in 1944. Essinger's perceptive commentary makes for interesting reading, and his work is a fluid contribution to the history of the computer. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


"With wit and imagination, Essinger has woven a marvelous tapestry celebrating this rugs-to-riches story and the unlikely birth of the information age."--Entertainment Weekly

"Jacquard's Web is more than the biography of a man and his machine. Mr. Essinger moves from the Industrial Age to the Information Age, connecting the loom, step by step, to the Harvard Mark I, the first proper computer, presented to the public in 1944.... Essinger tells his story with passion and with a gracious willingness to help the lay reader grasp the intricacies of technology."--Wall Street Journal

"Essinger does more than weave together science, history, and business: he sheds light on the nature of innovation.... His book deftly shows how even the most surprising breakthroughs are based on the work of others, and need a host of enabling factors to take root. Without the appropriate financial, technological, and cultural factors, no inventor, regardless of passion, can harvest his brilliant machine.... His tale of cultural, economic, and personal factors that enable ideas to become real tools makes this book a welcome addition to the literature of innovation."-- Tom Ehrenfeld, The Boston Globe

"Anyone who enjoyed Tom Standage's book on automata, The Mechanical Turk, will probably enjoy Jacquard's Web."--New Scientist

"An original perspective...the thread that runs through it--the relation of everything that has come since to the principle of the Jacquard loom--quite compelling."--Walter Gratzer, King's College London

Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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See all 11 customer reviews
Absorbing and engagingly written!
Essinger demonstrates how Mr. Jacquard's idea of using punched cards created a revolution.
J. Brian Watkins
An amazing work that shows how long the information age has really been around.
D. McMahon

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Heli on November 30, 2004
Format: Hardcover
As the least technologically-minded person I know I bought this book because I wanted to find out what computers really are and how they've come to dominate our lives today. The book didn't disappoint. It performs the unlikely paradox of making computing interesting - fascinating in fact.

This is because Jacquard's Web is such a human story. The author breathes life into some incredibly interesting characters - an ancient Chinese princess, two cheeky monks from Constantinople who perform the first recorded instance of industrial espionage when they sneak silk-worm eggs out of ancient China in their walking sticks, the greedy kings and queens of Europe and their unquenchable desire for luxurious fabrics, Napoleon, the fascinatingly eccentric Victorian computer pioneer Charles Babbage and his friend Ada Lovelace - daughter of the notoriously sexually rapacious poet Lord Byron, and of course dedicated, ingenious Jacquard himself.

I was surprisingly fascinated by the more modern portion of the story: Essinger's account of the trials and tribulations of Herman Hollerith and 1890 US Census when the US government struggled to find new technology to cope with the unprecedented mass of data that was pouring in. (Jacquard's punched card technology did the trick) and the account of the dawn of IBM.

This is a friendly, frequently very funny tale, and - for me - an enjoyable and truly memorable initiation into our high tech world of IT and the computer. I thoroughly recommend it.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By J. Brian Watkins VINE VOICE on April 20, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Mr. Essinger's writing exceeded all expectation--he is a gifted teller of history and even more gifted at drawing out the threads of technological developments. It takes some time for the real changes of society to become apparent--indeed, my cell phone shares a name and essential function with a device invented over a hundred years ago but who would have thought that such a simple idea could so drastically change the world. The most engaging histories draw on unexpected sources to shed an unexpected light upon the events in question. James Burke was a master of this with his Connections series--think of Jacquard's Web as a more focused version of Burke's incredibly discursive journeys. No better example of the maxim, "a picture is worth a thousand words" comes to mind than the fascinating story of the picture that is found on the very first page of the story.

Essinger demonstrates how Mr. Jacquard's idea of using punched cards created a revolution. He compares and contrasts Jacquard's success with the failure of Charles Babbage by showing how an incremental technological advancement was necessary, i.e. Herman Hollerith's tabulator. But the story is basically familiar to most anyone who would be interested in this volume. Essinger excels at demonstrating the incredible importance of the personal traits of historical figures. Babbage's temper and inability to stick to his original idea killed his chance at demonstrating the power of his ideas. Hollerith's persistence, on the other hand, took a simple idea and polished it until its value was indisputable. It is a very sympathetic portrayal of a man, Babbage, who saw the promised land that he could never enter.

Frankly, it is impossible for this reviewer to adequately portray the power of Mr. Essinger's seemingly effortless ability to teach. This is that rare book that demands a quick trip to the bookstore or a check of that tempting box--"overnight delivery."

Highest Recommendation
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Anthony Adolph on January 18, 2006
Format: Hardcover
James Essinger's book takes us on an amazing journey from Napoleonic France, through Victorian London and on to the otherwise bewildering offices of IBM and the other giants of the computer era.

On a basic level, this is a very readable history of computers, from the complexities of the modern era back through the stages that led to their invention - and then, most importantly, to the very roots of the idea - the first spark that lit a conflagration - in the mind of an otherwise obscure French silk weaver, Joseph-Marie Jacquard.

The book is far more than that, though. On another level, it is a series of brilliant recreations of the key stages in the computer's growth. We are zoomed into the frenetic world of Napoleonic Lyons; led by the writer's genteel hand into the polite salons of Victorian London and introduced to the likes of the Duke of Wellington and Ada Lovelace, daughter of none other than the great Byron, and then ushered on through the now rather wierd, geeky world of early-mid 20th century computerdom.

On yet another level, it does something that I feel needed doing for a long time. As an historian, and despite using them all the time, I had always felt computers were something rather alien, rather nasty. They're not things that you normally think about being rooted firmly in 18th and 19th century history. Yet here they are, in the true historical context, and suddenly a lot less scary.

What a wonderful read, for historian, computer-buff and any reader who delights in a cracking story grippingly told.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Elke Jeltsje on November 30, 2004
Format: Hardcover
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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