Early computer programming

This section focuses on three great men whose inventions laid the foundation for modern computer programming, Joseph-Marie Jacquard, Charles Babbage, and Herman Hollerith.

Punch cards were already in use in music boxes and earlier looms, but French silk-weaver Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752-1834) made such improvements in punch card technology that sophisticated patterns could be produced quickly through the mechanical direction of the punch card’s hole-code system. The Jacquard loom is controlled by a chain of multiple cards punched with holes that determine which cords of the fabric warp should be raised for each pass of the shuttle. The ability to store and automatically reproduce complex operations found wide application in textile manufacturing. (Source)

The Jacquard loom was a marvel of the Industrial Revolution. A textile-weaving loom, it could also be called the first practical information-processing device. The loom worked by tugging various-coloured threads into patterns by means of an array of rods. By inserting a card punched with holes, an operator could control the motion of the rods and thereby alter the pattern of the weave. Moreover, the loom was equipped with a card-reading device that slipped a new card from a prepunched deck into place every time the shuttle was thrown, so that complex weaving patterns could be automated.

What was extraordinary about the device was that it transferred the design process from a labour-intensive weaving stage to a card-punching stage. Once the cards had been punched and assembled, the design was complete, and the loom implemented the design automatically. The Jacquard loom, therefore, could be said to be programmed for different patterns by these decks of punched cards.

For those intent on mechanizing calculations, the Jacquard loom provided important lessons: the sequence of operations that a machine performs could be controlled to make the machine do something quite different; a punched card could be used as a medium for directing the machine; and, most important, a device could be directed to perform different tasks by feeding it instructions in a sort of language—i.e., making the machine programmable.

It is not too great a stretch to say that, in the Jacquard loom, programming was invented before the computer. The close relationship between the device and the program became apparent some 20 years later, with Charles Babbage’s invention of the first computer. (Source)

A picture of Joseph-Marie Jacquard, woven in silk on the loom he invented. The image is in public domain

Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first mechanical computer, was inspired by the Jacquard system to use punch cards to program his Analytical Engine (see next page for more).


The invention of various kinds of machines was attempted in the 19th century. Most were large and cumbersome, some resembling pianos in size and shape. All were much slower to use than handwriting. Finally, in 1867, the American inventor Christopher Latham Sholes read an article in the journal Scientific American describing a new British-invented machine and was inspired to construct what became the first practical typewriter. His second model, patented on June 23, 1868, wrote at a speed far exceeding that of a pen. It was a crude machine, but Sholes added many improvements in the next few years, and in 1873 he signed a contract with E. Remington and Sons, gunsmiths, of Ilion, New York, for manufacture. The first typewriters were placed on the market in 1874, and the machine was soon renamed the Remington. Among its original features that were still standard in machines built a century later were the cylinder, with its line-spacing and carriage-return mechanism; the escapement, which causes the letter spacing by carriage movement; the arrangement of the typebars so as to strike the paper at a common center; the actuation of the typebars by means of key levers and connecting wires; printing through an inked ribbon; and the positions of the different characters on the keyboard, which conform almost exactly to the arrangement that is now universal. Mark Twain purchased a Remington and became the first author to submit a typewritten book manuscript. (Read more)

The Sholes and Glidden typewriter. The image is in public domain

To learn more about one of the longest lasting technologies, see next page.


In 1877, Thomas Edison and his assistants attached a needle to the diaphragm of a telephone receiver with the idea that the needle could be used to etch an impression of sound onto quickly moving paper, thus creating a recording or sound writing.

Edison understood that sound is the vibration of particles across a medium, such as air, in waves. He developed a way to imprint or record the waves so that they could be played back or turned back into sound using a second needle.

He eventually designed a device he called the phonograph that had a brass cylinder wrapped in tinfoil, which rotated and moved lengthwise when turned by a hand crank. On one side was a diaphragm, or very thin membrane, connected to a needle. When sound waves were forced into the receiving end, it caused the membrane to vibrate and the needle to etch a groove into the foil as the cylinder was being turned by the crank, thus recording sound. A second needle and an amplifier were on the other side. When the cylinder was set to the beginning and the needle placed in the grooves, the original sound was reproduced as the vibrations were amplified. (Read more)

Phonograph cylinder from the Filaret Kolessa collection. The image is shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

To learn how Edison’s phonograph worked, click here.

During the early 1880s a contest developed between Thomas A. Edison  and the Volta Laboratory team of Chichester A. Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter. The objective was to transform Edison’s 1877 tinfoil phonograph, or talking machine, into an instrument capable of taking its place alongside the typewriter as a business correspondence device. This involved not only  building  a better machine, but finding a substance to replace the foil as the recording medium. By the beginning of 1887 both sides had announced the  invention of a machine  using a wax cylinder that would be incised vertically to match the sound vibrations. The same machine that was used to make the recording would, as with the tinfoil machine, be used for playback. Edison, as he did earlier, termed his wax cylinder apparatus a phonograph; Bell and Tainter named their apparatus a graphophone. Business people preferred the former, but neither machine was much of a success. Since the phonograph did not succeed as a dictating device, Edison’s company began to market pre-recorded wax cylinders of popular music that could be played on the phonograph in the office or home or even on coin-in-slot machines in arcades, saloons, and elsewhere. By the early 1890s a rudimentary recording industry was underway. Meanwhile, Bell and Tainter made considerable improvements to their graphophone, and they, too, entered the entertainment field. Both sides had applied for a patent on the vertical cutting, or incising, of sound vibrations into a wax cylinder. Both sides made recordings with the result that a phonograph cylinder could be played on the graphophone and vice-versa. (Read more)

A complete Edison Home Phonograph outfit from a 1901 catalog. The image is in public domain

Meanwhile Emile Berliner in Washington, D.C., began to take a great interest in the future of sound recording and reproduction. 

To read about Emile Berliner’s new invention, the gramophone, see next page.

Magnetic recorder

Magnetic recording is a method of preserving sounds, pictures, and data in the form of electrical signals through the selective magnetization of portions of a magnetic material. The principle of magnetic recording was first demonstrated by the Danish engineer Valdemar Poulsen in 1900, when he introduced a machine called the telegraphone that recorded speech magnetically on steel wire. (Read more)

Poulsen recorded his voice by feeding a telephone microphone signal to an electromagnet that he moved along a steel piano wire. In 1899 he filed a patent and founded a company to build the telegraphone, a pioneering telephone answering machine. A simple version stored 2 minutes of audio on 130 mm (5 inch) diameter steel disks. A recording medium of steel wire wound around a cylinder held up to 30 minutes of audio. Poulsen’s associate Peder Oluf Pedersen (1874 – 1941) patented electroplating disks with different magnetizable materials. The telegraphone received a Grand Prix at the 1900 Paris World Exhibition where it recorded Emperor Franz Josef of Austria. (Read more)

Telegraphone by Valdemar Poulsen. It is exhibited at Brede works Industrial Museum, Lingby, Denmark. The retouched image is shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

In the years following Poulsen’s invention, devices using a wide variety of magnetic recording mediums have been developed by researchers in Germany, Great Britain, and the United States. Principal among them are magnetic tape and disk recorders, which are used not only to reproduce audio and video signals but also to store computer data and measurements from instruments employed in scientific and medical research. Other significant magnetic recording devices include magnetic drum, core, and bubble units designed specifically to provide auxiliary data storage for computer systems. (Read more)

Wire recording or magnetic wire recording is an analog type of audio storage in which a magnetic recording is made on thin steel or stainless steel wire.

To read about the magnetic wire recorder, see next page.

Adding machines

Although there were many developments in the mechanisms and the materials used, the basic operating principles of mechanical calculators / adding machines did not change much from the late 19th century to their obsolescence in the 1970s.

The first calculator or adding machine to be produced in any quantity and actually used was the Pascaline, or Arithmetic Machine, designed and built by the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal between 1642 and 1644. It could only add and subtract, with numbers being entered by manipulating its dials. Pascal invented the machine for his father, a tax collector. He built 50 of them over the next 10 years.

A six figures calculating machine by Blaise Pascal (ca. 1652). This photo by Rama is shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 France license.

In 1671 the German mathematician-philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz designed a calculating machine called the Step Reckoner. The Step Reckoner expanded on Pascal’s ideas and did multiplication by repeated addition and shifting.

A step reckoner. This 1904 photo is in the public domain.

With the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century came a widespread need to perform repetitive operations efficiently. In 1820 Charles Xavier Thomas de Colmar of France built his Arithmometer, the first commercial mass-produced calculating device. It could perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, and even division. Based on Leibniz’s technology, it was extremely popular and sold for 90 years. The Arithmometer was large enough to cover a desktop.

Arithmometer. Exhibit in the Tekniska museet, Stockholm, Sweden. The photo by Daderot is shared under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

The first mechanical calculation machines were not very reliable. But they became the basis for the highly successful mechanical calculators built throughout the 19th and 20th century, when more accurate gears and wheels became available.

To learn how pre-computer calculating machines worked, see next page.