Weaving Research part 8

This week I continued to balance the false mythology of The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, with the biography Ada's Algorithm. I reached an interesting point where they discussed the influence of the Jacquard loom on Lovelace and Babbage's work.

The Difference Engine

In the early 1830's Babbage built a Difference Engine, capable of carrying out calculations using a system of turning cogs. Ada encountered the machine in 1833 at age 17, when she first met Babbage at one of his famous parties. One attendee, Sophie Frend wrote about the encounter:

While other visitors gazed at the working of this beautiful instrument with the sort of expression, and I dare say the sort of feeling, that some savages are said to have shown on first seeing a looking-glass or hearing a gun ... Miss Byron, young as she was, understood its working, and saw the great beauty of the invention. (Essinger, 88)

Sydney Padua illustrates this scene in *The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.

Cells from the graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

Lady Byron, Ada's mother, was very fond of mathematics (and quite opposed to poetry). In a letter to a friend she wrote about the precision of the machine and the previously inconceivable uniformity of it's calculations, "There was a sublimity in the views thus opened of the ultimate results of intellectual power." (Essinger, 87)

Image of the 1832 Difference Engine with a sketch from Harper's Magazine c.1864

It's not hard to imagine that the ability to carry out lengthy calculations with such a degree of accuracy was necessary for the development of mathematics, economics, physics and other scientific studies.

The Analytical Engine

From the mid 1830s through the late 1840s, Babbage devoted his life to the design of the successor to the Difference Engine, the Analytical Engine. This machine was never finished, but was carefully and thoroughly designed enormous machine full of turning cogs and was, above all, controlled by a punched-card system. The punched-card system was based on the Jacquard loom, which was invented just a few decades before.

Early Jacquard Loom Design

Jacquard Punched-Cards (19th Century)

Babbage's Punched-Cards (19th Century) Babbage's punched-cards

The cards were capable of storing and repeating data, and they did not limit the length of a program. Among other fundamental building blocks of modern computing, the cards introduced the use of a binary digit or 'bit'. These are the original 0's and 1's of computer programming. Artists who turns textile designs into punchcards were, in a way, the first compilers.

Jacquard-card Making

Padua's comic Interpretation of the Punch Card Machine for the Analytical Engine

About his inspiration Babbage wrote, "It is known as a fact that the Jacquard loom is capable of weaving any design which the imagination of man may conceive." (Essinger, 117) Babbage wanted build a general purpose machine that could carry out any program it received.

Babbage's Designs for the Analytical Engine Analytical engine designs

The machine used three different types of cards. Operational Cards controlled the operation of the machine (functions). Variable Cards specified the location of the number to be operated on (variables), and Number Cards held the numbers to be operated on (input).

Babbage is described thinking of the world in mechanisms and charts, while Lovelace had a nature for understanding and explaining difficult concepts in approachable metaphors. The popularity of the Jacquard loom afforded a common vocabulary for the complexities of computing. Essinger points out that, "for Ada, Jacquard's loom was a conceptual gateway for developing that emotional understanding." (Essinger, 141)

Ada had an understanding of the loom after visiting many industrial mills with her mother during a tour throughout Europe. It was Babbage that is credited with the idea to adapt the punched-card system for computation, but Essinger points out:

It was this part that was to provide an important catalyst for Ada's understanding of what the Analytical Engine could really achieve -- an understanding that even eluded Charles Babbage himself. (Essigner, 116)

The Analytical Engine borrowed the textile industry terms "store" and "mill" to describe the two parts of the Analytical Engine. The mill being an analog for the modern day processor, and the store being the memory.

Though Babbage never raised enough money or interest to see the machine to its completion, some speculations have been made about its grandioseness. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is set in a world where the sprawling machine had been completed into a labyrinth of cog towers.

Padua's interpretation of the analytical engine

Woven Songs

The punched-card system for the Jacquard loom was actually inspired by a system used by musical organs. Artist duo Glithero developed a system to translate organ music into Jacquard cards to weave tapestries.

Woven Song punch cards and tapestry

Glithero Woven Song Jacquard loom

This project explores the similarities of the two technologies and uses the loom as a means of visualizing music. Using technology that is over 200 years old, they created something poetic that looks very contemporary.

Glithero Woven Song tapestries

One thing in particular that drew me to this piece was the trailer, and how they clearly and reverently they depict the crafts.

WOVEN SONG TRAILER from Glithero on Vimeo.


This week I tried to break away from the loom. I chose to weave on my body. I chose my hand and foot because I could be my own warp. It felt very freeing to walk away from my looms for a little bit. It gave me a chance to be mindful again with my work.

weaving on hand weaving on hand, wrong side

My hands and feet are both so important to my life as a designer/programmer/fabricator/knitter living in New York City. At the same time, I struggle with the body image of these body parts. I hate when people look at my hands, and I'm almost never barefoot. I realized as I was photographing these body tapestries that I was uncomfortable with posting them, but the tapestry also acts as a mask. It feels protective, yet impractical and ephemeral.

weaving on foot

In a way it felt like a self-portrait for the way I had been feeling over the past few weeks. As Marina pointed out, my daily practice was a bit tyrannical. My obsession with mastering fiber arts was also driving me to resent the topic. I realized this was a passing feeling and I just needed to find more balance in my artistic and research practices.