metaphysical & metaphorical musings : art, architecture, and arithmetic

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Punched Cards

In 1811, Lord Byron went before the House of Lords in defense of the ‘frame breakers’, textile workers who lost their jobs to mechanical looms and retaliated by smashing the offending machines.  A decade earlier, these Jacquard looms were developed from a more primitive design.  A crucial improvement in the Jacquard loom’s design was its method of input: the punched card.  This was the first machine to operate on binary, a language of presence and absence, like the modern computer.

Augusta Ada King, Countess Lovelace, is credited as the first computer programmer, working with Charles Babbage’s designs for his analytical engine capable of mechanically performing complex calculations—a major leap forward in efficiency and speed toward our modern electronic computers.  Of course, Ada wasn’t using keyboard—she was using punched cards.

Punch(ed)line: Augusta Ada King was born Augusta Ada Byron, and we remember her precisely because of her relationship with a technology that her father politically opposed.

‘the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves’ – Lady Lovelace, qtd. in Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach

John von Neumann revolutionized computing after World War II.  Impressed by the complexity and slowness of calculations conducted by hand and counting machine at Los Alamos.  Also during the war, he was able to study the ENIAC computer.  Based on these, von Neumann proposed a digital, binary, stored-program computer.  His wife, Klara, became one of the first programmers of this new type of computer—a sort of female-line descendent of Ada.

“I like the lucidity of mathematical world and the mathematical feeling that there is only one right answer to a problem.” – Klara von Neumann, qtd. in Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma

Punch(ed)line: According to Poundstone, von Neumann's brother speculated that John was inspired to use punched cards in his computer by childhood conversations about the Jacquard loom factory that their father's bank financed, rather than descending directly from the design of Babbage's early mechanical computer.

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