V. 1, Ch. 15 of Capital discusses carding machines extensively. Footnote 6 mentions

[Only recently have] machine tools been made in England by machinery, and not by the same manufacturers who make the machines. Instances of machines for the fabrication of these mechanical tools are, the automatic bobbin-making engine, the cardsetting engine, shuttle-making machines, and machines for forging mule and throstle spindles.

What is a 'cardsetting engine'? Was it a component in the cotton manufacturing process, or a machine used to produce a component in that process (e.g, do cardsetting engines make carding machines)? Or perhaps something else entirely (e.g, producing machine tools for stationery card manufacture)?

1 Answer 1


To get a possible difficulty with translations out of the way, here is the original footnote by Marx in German. As you can see, he does not translate the names of the machines.

Erst seit ungefähr 1850 wird ein stets wachsender Teil der Werkzeuge der Arbeitsmaschinen maschinenmäßig in England fabriziert, obgleich nicht von denselben Fabrikanten, welche die Maschinen selbst machen. Maschinen zur Fabrikation solcher mechanischen Werkzeuge sind z.B. die automatic bobbin-making engine, card-setting engine, Maschinen zum Machen der Weberlitzen, Maschinen zum Schmieden von mule und throstle Spindeln.

It seems to be a machine to produce the teethed surface of the rolls which in turn are used in a carding machine.

Let's trace that back. Carding is a process to disentangle the fibres of raw cotton or wool before it is spun. This is done in machines that Collier, Ann M (1970), A Handbook of Textiles, Pergamon Press, p. 258 describes (cited in Wikipedia):

The cotton comes off of the picking machine in laps, and is then taken to carding machines. The carders line up the fibres nicely to make them easier to spin. The carding machine consists mainly of one big roller with smaller ones surrounding it. All of the rollers are covered with small teeth, and as the cotton progresses further on the teeth get finer (i.e. closer together). The cotton leaves the carding machine in the form of a sliver; a large rope of fibres.

How do you get a roll that is "covered with small teeth"? Basically, the rolls are covered with strips of cloth (of rubber, leather or another tough fabric), through which ends of steel wire are stuck. These strips are called card clothing.

The work to stick the needles in the cloth is called card setting, and the workers minding the machines card setting tenters. A Dictionary of Occupational Terms Based on the Classification of Occupations used in the Census of Population, 1921. defines

  • card setter, card teeth setter, card setting machine minder: see machine attendant.

  • machine attendant, machine tenter ; card setter, card teeth setter, card setting machine minder: attends and makes very fine adjustments to machine, or series of machines, which "sew" into textile foundation of card clothing, varying lengths and thicknesses of fine ware to form teeth of card clothing; places coils of wire on reels, threads wire into feed and through cutter die; places roll of cloth on spindle and feeds into machine; watches for any faulty work.

The machine to stick the needles in the cloth is called a card-setting machine. Here is a picture of Crabtree's Card Setting Machine, 1866 you find all over the internet:

enter image description here

I haven't found a mid-19th century description, but there is a patent from 1894 that describes an improvement to pre-existing machines of that kind:

My invention relates to certain improvements in card sticking or setting machines, that is, machines in which a strip or sheet of fabric or leather is provided with a series of teeth, technically known as card clothing.
The main object of my invention is to so construct a machine for this purpose that it can be driven at a high rate of speed and can be adapted for setting teeth either in sheets or fillets.

Some people did think of the punch-cards used by early computer machinery and in 19th century Jacuard looms – me included, initially. But that is a wrong connection.

First, consider the functional differences: a keypunch makes a hole with a peg, and then moves the peg out for reuse, while the card setter inserts a pin and leaves it in place. If realised as a machine, this leads to very different concepts: the carding machine continuously feeds a wire in that is sheared of after threading it through the cloth, a wholly automated process. The keypunch, as invented for the use with Jacquard looms, looks a bit like a typewriter, with keys to be manually pressed by an operator. The original Hollerith keypunches had only one lever, movable like a pantograph.

Second, the word "card" actually has two separate etymologies. Webster explains:

a flat stiff usually small and rectangular piece of material (such as paper, cardboard, or plastic) usually bearing information
Middle English carde, from Anglo-French, alteration of Middle French carte, probably from Old Italian carta, literally, leaf of paper, from Latin charta leaf of papyrus, from Greek chartēs

an instrument or machine for carding fibers that consists usually of bent wire teeth set closely in rows in a thick piece of leather fastened to a back
Middle English carde, from Medieval Latin cardus, carduus, thistle, carding instrument, from Latin carduus thistle

  • 2
    fantastic response, cheers. there are a couple cool glimpses at the carding process online - it's a shame i can't find any visual demonstrations of the 19th century (or any century since) card setting process, Crabtree's design is really neat!
    – shea
    Commented Mar 19 at 0:41
  • FWIW, I believe these are where the punched-cards that early computers used came from.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 19 at 13:21
  • @T.E.D. That was my initial assumption but this answer is pointing to a different kind of thing.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Mar 19 at 14:43
  • 1
    @T.E.D. No, that does not make sense. I was following that track also, but all pictures of keypunch machines for Jaquard looms (the predecessors for the use of puch-cards) that I found show a typewriter-like setup with hand-activated levers. The original Hollerith keypunches had only one lever, movable like a pantograph. None were automated machines...
    – ccprog
    Commented Mar 19 at 14:47
  • 1
    ...Also consider the expected result: a keypuch makes a hole with a peg, and then moves the peg out for resuse, while the card setter inserts a pin and leaves it in place. To me it seems the similarity between the words "the card" and the verb "to card" is incidental.
    – ccprog
    Commented Mar 19 at 14:49

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