Jacquard's Web


James Essinger




Date Reviewed:

November 23, 2007

believe I first heard about this book from a positive review in the Seattle newspaper (though I can not find that review now). Then I saw the book on the shelf at the library under the Staff Recommendations banner. At the moment I am writing this review, the six other reviewers have posted their remarks on Amazon, and all six have all awarded it a five star rating. So it was a major disappointment to me to find this small, slim book (a mere 262 pages in hardback version) to be such a shallow synopsis of the information age. This book contains no more material than can be found in a good documentary. Indeed, this book seems to repeat all the information presented in James Burke's classic Connections series - check out episode 4 - indeed, watch the entire series. In a few minutes, Burke manages to convey much of the information presented in this book, and Burke is the more entertaining presenter. Essinger's book is shallow indeed.

Despite the title, this book does not focus on Jacquard. Indeed, the inventive weaver is dead in his grave by page 45. Apparently, Essinger was unable to unearth much information on Jacquard's life. Since this is a nonfiction book, he couldn't just create details about Jacquard. But I believe Essinger could have done a much better job explaining how the automated loom work - for example, how did the cards advance? How were the weaving patterns changed? What process was used to translate the desired image to the punch cards?

The star of this book is really Charles Babbage and his Difference Engine. Babbage didn't complete the Difference Engine before he abandoned the project to work on the even more powerful Analytical Engine. Essinger spends quite a few chapters on Babbage, despite the fact that Babbage never completed a working design for either of his computing machines. I think Essinger gives us so much detail regarding Babbage because Babbage left volumes of correspondence, which makes it easy for a lazy researcher to find lots of material. Indeed, my chief complaint with this book is the amount of attention Essinger focuses on Babbage's female friend Ada Lovelace. There are pages full of material about Ada, despite the fact that her only contribution to the rise of computing machines was one summary/review that she wrote for an influential magazine - but later in the book, Essinger admits that Babbage may have provided much of the material for Ada's article (she wrote the article, but Babbage could well have provided insights and examples that were so important.) Despite this meager contribution, Ada gets more ink that Jacquard himself! A travesty. An entire appendix contains the text of one Ada document - it seemed like cheap padding to make the book thicker.

The punch cards that used to carry the weaving patterns were adopted for use by the US census; a man named Hollerith had the ingenious idea of creating tabulators - machines that could mechanically sort and count punch cards. Details for each individual were encoded onto a card: information on race, nation of origin, size of family, age, etc, were encoded onto the cards. The tabulators could then rapidly sort piles of cards to extract all sorts of interesting statistics on America's population. Essinger covers this material in solid fashion, but frankly, Burke's TV series does a much better job with this material.

The story of the rise of Thomas Watson and IBM is perhaps the best part of Essinger's effort. It is interesting to see the rise of the major corporation based upon Watson's vision, and the culture he institutes as IBM grows. But this is not a big book so the IBM chapters are mostly a summary; I assume there are better books out there that tell the IBM story.

There is not a lot of material in this book that was new to me. Essinger is not a great a describing how the machines work, nor does he do a great job at telling the stories of the major players (other than Thomas Watson.) I suggest you skip this book, there must be something better about the origins of the information age.