The Loom

a research blog exploring the diverse history of digital computing by Whitney Trettien

The First Digital Book

29 Aug 2022

Photograph of the title page of a book woven in 1886

This is a textile, not a text. Or rather, a textile that is a text. It’s a silk book of prayers “printed” – woven – around 1886 on a Jacquard loom, a machine widely considered to be one origin point for modern digital computing.

A little background: weaving on a hand loom involves lifting the heddles in a set pattern, which in turn lifts the warp threads, enabling you to weave the shuttle with the weft thread back and forth. It is a laborious, slow, and largely repetitive task.

Heddles on a hand loom
Weaving on a hand loom, photo by Arne Heggestad

The Jacquard loom, invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard around 1801, automates this selection process using a system of punched cards. These cards operate by way of a simple binary logic: each segment of the card corresponds to one warp thread, or set of threads, which is then either raised or stopped from being raised according to whether that spot on the card is punched or not.

Hole, paper; on, off.

A Jacquard loom
Image of Jacquard loom, taken by John R. Southern

By linking a series of these cards into a chain, the weaver can quickly move through an elaborate pattern without needing to know anything about it. That labor has been off-loaded onto the person who designs the punch card, or rather who translates the material design into abstracted binary information that is then stored on the paper. Once design becomes data, it can be stored copied indefinitely across different cards using this punch, or even different types of substrates altogether.

A worker punching cards for weaving in a Jacquard loom in China in 1984
Worker punching Jacquard cards in a factory near Hangzchou, China, 1984, from the Knoxville Museum of Art

This isn’t just a faster way of weaving: it’s a wholesale reconceptualization of the field of relations between an image and its reproduction.

The designer of this book, Jean Hervier, seemed to recognize this when he choose, with great irony, to make the book look like an illuminated medieval manuscript. In fact, many of the images are copied from nineteenth-century chromolithographic facsimiles of actual medieval manuscripts and paintings, making this a book a copy of a copy. These chromolithographic facsimiles were highly prized by bibliophiles and often served to demonstrate the potential of lithography to mass-reproduce high-resolution images of historical materials – just as the woven book is a demonstration of the creative powers and literary potential of the Jacquard loom.

Photograph of the title page of a book woven in 1886

This book has become the accidental starting point of my journey to unearth the diverse origins of digital computing as we know and experience it today. I have long been interested in what digital texts are, how they operate in ways that are different than, and sometimes similar to, printed texts. My book Cut/Copy/Paste takes up this question by looking at examples of what we might (anachronistically) call experimental multimodal publications made in the seventeenth century with scissors and paste – and what these weird old books might teach us about digital publishing today. I’ve also written an article about how historical texts are being revived through print-on-demand publishing, often in bibliographically odd ways. And I teach classes on the history of the book, the book in the digital age, and a field known as “digital humanities,” where emerging technologies are used to answer questions about art, literature, and history. In all of this work, I draw long, sometimes swervy lines from past to present, old book to new technology.

Over the last few years, though, I’ve become eager to shrink this link and instead zoom in on the pivot point itself, that historical moment when digital computing as we know it today began to take shape. How, exactly, did we get from texts printed with pieces of movable type to digitally-encoded characters like the ones you’re reading now? Did printing technologies contribute to the development of telecommunications, or were the “new” media seen to be overturning the “old”? Gradual transition, revolution and rupture, or something otherwise? And how do we write about the history digital media in a way that recognizes their difference from, and the persistence of, material texts and printed books?

These are not unusual questions to be asking in the history of technology, and I cannot, right now, claim any new insights or answers. But this woven book of hours, “printed” on a Jacquard loom – at exactly the moment the Western world is getting wired – suggests to me there is more to the story than has been told so far. This research blog is the beginning of my search for new narratives.