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Thank the loom

Posted: 08.18.08

The mechanical loom developed by Joseph Marie Jacquard between 1801 and 1805, which used holes punched in pasteboard, was the beginning of the digital age. Were it not for that machine, we’d still be calculating using gears and analog representations. One can only imagine (and what a fun mind experiment it is) the kinds of automated writing machines we might have if we were stuck in analog land.

The move to digital, first mechanically then electro-mechanically with solenoid and relays, then early electronically with vacuum tubes (valves); GTX280 the biggest development since the industrial age. Or, more accurately, it is the consummation of a process that began in the Industrial Age and is hurtling us beyond the Space Age. Digital has empowered the internet, computer graphics, and uncountable other devices and industries.

And whereas almost everyone praises the Internet as the greatest development in the world since the stream engine, in fact it was only possible due to the advent of digital mechanisms and communications.

From Jacquard’s loom in England it took 130 years to get the first digital, or binary, computer developed by Konrad Zuse in Germany, in 1938. Prior to Zuse, mechanical calculating machines of that time were based on the decimal number system, including Babbage’s amazing machines. Zuse’s machine used no relays but rather a novel mechanical memory device consisting of thin metal strips.

Things moved rapidly after that and the first electronic binary computer was built at Iowa University of Iowa in 1937. It was a hard-wired machine and not programmable, and it’s highly unlikely John Atanasoff's and Clifford Berry had any idea what Zuse was doing due to limited communications and political difficulties of the times.

Figure 1: The Z1 computer with manual crank for driving the clock byhand.

The Colossus, the first programmable, binary electronic computer was de­veloped in the UK at the famous Bletchley Park in 1943, where it was employed to break German codes, and from it came forthe several improvements in England and the U.S., and ultimately all over the world.

Jacquard’s loom had a few dozen moving parts, made of wood. Zuse’s Z1 had 30,000 mechanical parts, and the Colossus had 1,500 valves (tubes) plus a few hundred relays and various other electro-mechanical parts for programming and printing.

Compare that to today’s GPUs from Nvidia and AMD. Nvidia’s GPU has over a billion transistors, AMD’s close to a billion. It gives you a sense of how far we have progressed in 65 years. And in 10 years, maybe a few more, we’ll talk about the zillions of quantum states in our current machines as we approach the singularity.

The acceleration of technology and all the benefits and, in some cases, heartaches it has brought is completely due to the adoption of the digital binary system. Although never postulated as a seminal discovery like electricity or e=mc2, we could not be where we are without it. The colossal irony of it is that we human animals are decimal and analog based, and we have had to abandon our natural preference for such domains in order to exploit the power of digital binary mechanisms—clearly one of the great demonstrations of human adaptivity. I think there is hope for us after all.

For if you’d like to read the fascinating story of Konrad Zuse, you can find it at http://www.epemag.com/zuse/default.htm#index.