While many inventors can have a dramatic impact in a certain industry with the innovations that they develop, few have a huge impact in multiple areas. Even men like Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, had limited impact with their invention in other areas of society. The phone helped to create a sound transmission that was used for direct person communication, but the invention did not reach across to many other forms of communication. It is the rare inventor that is able to reach across to multiple to many different areas with one single invention.
This is what Joseph Marie Jacquard was able to do, however. With his automated programmable loom, he created an innovation that would later be used to program several different kinds of machines, making him one of the most significant and influential inventors of all-time.
Born in 1752, Jacquard grew up near Lyons in France. He grew up in an area where many of his relatives lived as well, so his line of the family was called Charles after his grandfathers’ generation, which is the reason he is often given the full name of Joseph Marie Charles Jacquard.
Jacquard was born into a very conservative Catholic family, and his parents had nine children. The church was very much the centre of the family. Sadly, only he and his sister Clemenceau reached their 18th birthday, as the other seven all passed away from illness before they reached the age of adulthood.
Joseph’s father was quite wealthy, but he did not send his children to school. Joseph received no formal education, so he was illiterate until he was 13. His sister’s husband, Jean-Marie Barrett, began to teach him to read and write.
His father had been a master loomer and in 1772 he passed away when Joseph was just 20. As the only living son, Joseph received his father’s estate, including the home, looms, workshop, as well as a quarry and a vineyard. For the next 28-years, he worked in several different kinds of weaving and silk making, building up quite a reputation for himself. However, this was not what he truly wanted to do with himself.
After spending nearly 50 years of his life trying to figure out exactly what he wanted to do, things changed drastically for him in 1800. Joseph Marie Jacquard got involved in designing and inventing a whole series of inventions.
The first of these inventions came in 1800 when he created the treadle loom. In 1803 he added a loom that could weave fishing nets more efficiently, and a year later he started the invention that would become his greatest legacy – the Jacquard loom.
His original model that he invented in 1800 was first displayed in 1801 at the Industrial Exhibition in France’s capital city of Paris. The improvements caught the attention of many at the expo, and two years later he was attached to the country’s most prestigious school of inventors in the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers. There he spent another year perfecting his invention until, in 1804, the Jacquard weaving loom was finished.
The loom was revolutionary, but labourers in the country were not so pleased with it. Like many innovations of this nature, mechanical automation left many in the labour force worrying that their job would be in danger. Over the prior 80 years, many changes had been developed in the weaving industry that left a large percentage of the workforce having to find different employment options due to the automation. Those in the silk-weaving industry worried that this would be the same fate for them as well. This did not occur, at least, not immediately. While many historians talk about how quickly the machine took off and that over 11,000 were in operation by 1812, the truth is that the punch card mechanism had some issues and the loom was not widely in use for more than 11 years after its original creation.
It was not until 1815 that it began to be used in large numbers. It was the work of Jeane Antoine Breton that perfected the machine’s punch card mechanism and this led to a huge increase in the number of sales of the machine. Breton’s improvements reinvigorated the concerns that that labour force had a decade earlier. Sadly, layoffs occurred as the machine was so efficient that silk-weavers were not needed in as large of numbers as they had been before.
The semi-automated loom had been in use since Basile Bouchon had created it in 1725 and Jean Baptiste Falcon's revised loom in 1728. Innovations had been added that even made the loom fully automated by 1745, but that did not happen in the silk weaving industry. Because of the machine's construction, the use of punch cards was not considered viable because of the delicate work of using silk.
The punch card had been an essential improvement in the textile improvement since Bouchon’s perforated paper tape had been employed nearly eight decades before Jacquard’s invention. This has moved from paper tape to cards a few years later and eventually led to an improved model in 1745.
The punch cards were important for one primary reason. Prior to their introduction, a weaver had to manually weave textiles and tapestries together. While many of the workers were quite skilled at what they did, uniformity was always an issue and the fact was that a weaver could only produce so many textiles at one time. Also, as the day went along one always had to worry about fatigue and other issues that could slow down work and lead to a quality issue with production.
The introduction of the punch card changed this. This made it so that several needles could be employed at one time, with the punch card determining when a needle needed to push through to make the textile of tapestry. Housed in the loom, several needles were present. The punch card would tell how many and which needles were to be employed at each point. This made sure that the textiles and tapestries that were produced were identical each time they were made because of this automation.
By 1800, this kind of idea was not available in the silk looms. The design of the looms and the intricacies of the work made it difficult to employ such technology, but Jacquard figured out a way to make that happen.
The fact that he was able to do this was an enormous boon for France in general. When Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power, England was the leader in textile production and the new French leader wanted to see that change. In addition, he demanded a lot of silk goods to be produced, and the use of manually operated silk looms simply could not meet the demand. A new method had to be developed if France was going to meet the demands of Napoleon, and this is what Jacquard sought out to do.
Interestingly enough, while he created an innovation that aided in the improvement of efficiency of silk production, it was not until 1815 that the machine was improved to the point that silk production would be perfected. By that point, Napoleon and his armies had been defeated, and he was exiled to the island of Elba.
So what did Jacquard do to improve the loom? It began with his studies of Jacques de Vaucanson, who had built the first fully automated machine in 1745. Jacquard sought to understand the model that Vaucanson had used and by 1804 he had been able to figure out how to institute some of these ideas in the silk weaving loom.
The biggest of these was the punch card mechanism that was used in his loom. Punch cards were not new by any stretch of the imagination, but it was the design of his that was truly unique. This allowed for some very fine detail work to be done, and also made it so that the amount of work that could be done by the loom was quite detailed and intricate.
The emperor and his wife were thrilled when they saw Joseph Marie Jacquard’s machine. Napoleon, himself, granted a patent on the loom, and the inventor received a pension of 3,000 francs for his work. He also received a 50 franc royalty for each loom that was bought starting in 1805. This helped him to become a wealthy man, even if his machine was not perfect to that point.
In 1834, Joseph Marie Jacquard finally passed away. He was 82 years old. A statue has been erected in his honour in Lyon. He is viewed as one of the most important men in the history of textile production because of how he helped to revolution the silk weaving industry, and this has earned him a distinguished place among all inventors in general.