Jacquard's Web

James Essinger

Publisher Oxford University Press
ISBN 0-19-280577-0
RRP £14.99
Reviewed by Alan Pollard FBCS CITP, BCS Vice President Member Services
Score 9.5 out of 10

This fascinating and well-researched book is hard to put down. Though it is a work of non-fiction, it reads more like a historical detective novel than a treatise on computing. Jacquard's Web 

It is a book that can easily be read by all but is likely to hold a special appeal to IT people just starting out in their careers and those a little more senior who are able to reflect knowledgeably on the past 50 years.

Part social history, part reference book and part documentary, Jacquard’s Web traces a lineage for computing through the years back to the early use of a set of punched cards. They were used in the late 18th century by a weaver called Joseph-Marie Jacquard to speed up the manufacture of woven silk fabrics and enhance the complexity of their designs.

The book tells the story of the development of computing since those days and charts the progress of evolutionary thought by people such as Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace and Herman Hollerith. It depicts a contest between the search for intellectual advancement and the need to find practical applications for the new technology. 

As today, the ideas required business investment if they were to flourish but financial success was not the principal objective of the early thinkers.

The turning point was when punched cards were used to speed up the processing of national census data, opening up minds to their potential benefits. Hollerith’s invention of a mechanical means of handling thousands of cards soon led to the establishment of his Tabulating Machine Company, which in due course and after several name changes became IBM. The rest, as they say, is history.
But it was the thinking of Charles Babbage and his muse Ada Lovelace which created the first link between the weaving loom and today’s computer.

Babbage’s analytical engine, which he attempted to build to demonstrate the repeatable calculating principles inspired by punched cards, never saw the light of day. However, its basic concepts power today’s supercomputers, giving Babbage the right to the title of the Father of Computing. 

Further information: http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/