The Quixtar Revolution

An excerpt from The Quixtar Revolution


The Internet Revolution that is reshaping business and society today had its beginnings in the Industrial Revolution two hundred years ago. I don’t mean that figuratively, in the sense that one great age of innovation lays the groundwork for another. I mean it literally: the direct roots of the Digital Age can be traced to the technological advances of the Industrial era. The very same textile machines that helped create the factory system and mass production in the early 1800s provided the technology that was used to create the first computers. Let me show you how it happened.

The son of an affluent English banker, Charles Babbage was born in 1791 just as the Industrial Revolution was picking up speed. Watt’s steam engine and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin were starting to have an impact on society. A notable mathematician and ecnomist, Babbage is widley credted a the inventor of the first modern computing machine.

An important breakthrough in his production of his “Analytical Machine” came when Babbage began to study the latest textile machinery being used in factories and mills. Babbage was particularly interested in the clever workings of an ingenuous loom design that had been developed in 1801 by French inventor Joseph Jacquard. The Jacquard lookm used punched cards to direct the movement of the threads. Using the prepared cards to control the loms, weavers could mass-produce complicated images of flowers and leaves. That same punch-card technology was later used in music boxes and player pianos.

In the punch-cards of the Jacquard loom, Babbage found the answer to one of his most pressing problems: how to control the mechanism (and thus the calculating abilities) of his Analytical Machine. Punched cards, and later, punched paper tape, proved to be the key method of “programming” the earliest computing machines. That same technology, based on an innovative weaving machine of two hundred years ago, would last well into the 20th century— continuing to be the most effective way that engineers would program the first electronic computers.

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