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Jacquard’s Web – James Essinger: Book Review

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Book Cover for Jacquard's Web

Book Cover for Jacquard's Web

So apparently the Information Age all started with a French silk hand loom made in 1804.  Whaaaaa?

I recently finished Jacquard’s Web written by James Essinger and it was interesting to see how the Information Age grew from (yes) a silk hand loom invented by Joseph-Marie Jacquard.  The concept of the silk hand loom, with its weaving patterns and punch cards, inspired Charles Babbage to invent the Analytical Machine and Ada Lovelace to become the first-ever programmer.  It also inspired Herman Hollerith to develop the punch card machine and Howard Aiken to build the Harvard Mark I – the first general-purpose computer.  And of course, these machines helped build a technology empire in the early 20th century – IBM.

Essinger also points out several events in the past which are prevalent today every time a new technology is created – for example, when Jacquard invented the hand loom, it replaced the jobs of many draw-boys who weaved silk manually.  “The path to acceptance of a new invention in the world at large is rarely a smooth one”, Essinger writes.

Another interesting fact that I discovered was that Babbage and Lovelace didn’t actually get to see the Analytical Machine in existence – the technology available to them at that time was insufficient.  The concept was waayyyy before their time – it was only until the 20th century the concept could be pursued further with Hollerith’s punch card machines.

Oh and another thing – Babbage actually turned down Lovelace’s help for the development of the machine. Intriguing stuff there.

This is the first book I’ve read on the history of computers.  I reckon it’s a great book and it doesn’t drill facts into your mind – Essinger almost writes it as if it were a novel, not just some dull university textbook.  Also I think sometimes we have to look into the past for guidance into the future, so IT geeks out there should find this book quite informative.  Just letting you know though, the latest publication was in 2007, so it only touches on the computer history up until that point (I’m not sure if there is an updated version).

Overall, Jacquard’s Web is a fascinating book on the bloom of the Information Age and I recommend it to any reader with an interest on computer history – tech-savvy or not.

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