As possibly some of you remember early computers had very small human-machine interface and coding programs was done by cards like this one:

enter image description here

or a tape like these:

enter image description here

This invention of controlling machine using punched elements (having gaps or knobs) is older and was used in many cases like for workers' cards used to note their time of work, music boxes etc.

This invention could be made at first in Jacquard loom to control order of threads in different colours to make a pattern.

I'm sure I read also about other common use of this type (with gaps or knobs) of control machine, that was somewhat important in the industrial era, this could not be a steam engine, but I can't remember. What was other use of punched card (or a cylinder maybe) in industry?

(It was not what Wikipedia says:

In the late 19th century, Herman Hollerith took the idea of using punched cards to store information a step further when he created a punched card tabulating machine which was used in the 1890 U.S. Census.

I'm sure it was a large machine)

  • 1
    I am not sure if you would count this but Pascal mad a calculator in 1642 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal%27s_calculator Jul 18, 2013 at 23:14
  • This is a swell question! It is interesting to understand this in the historical context that led to modern computing -- and is it even true that the ideas of the 19th and 18th centuries that appear to lead to modern computing were necessary for modern computing to happen or would it have occurred without the work of Jacquard, Babbage, Boole, Lovelace and Hollerith anyway and in the same form? (I would guess that Boole and Hollerith had the most lasting influence.)
    – Jeff
    Nov 15, 2017 at 10:59

1 Answer 1


I believe the first "programmable" devices in common industrial use were the big industrial power looms in England in the late 18th and early 19th century. The Jacquard loom in 1801 was the first to use punched-cards for its programming.

Way over in Ukraine, Russian Semen Korasakov saw the potential of these cards for information storage and retrieval, and designed machines for this purpose in the early 1830s. Wikipedia claims that up to this time nobody was using the cards outside of the textile industry. Sadly, it appears that nobody outside of far eastern Europe heard of Karasakov's devices until the 20th century.

When mathemetician Ada Lovelace was helping Charles Babbage with his Analytical Engine design (the first known semi-practical programmable mechanical computing device design) in the 1830's, they borrowed the idea of programming it via punched-cards. Countess Lovelace went so far as to write down and publish an algorithm for it. Based on this, it is argued that she was the world's first computer programmer.

Jonathan Aylen says that steel mills were indeed using punched cards for programming before computers, and that the transition was so gradual that it is in fact hard to say exactly when computer steel mill control actually begain. So presumably the cards were eventually being used in mills other than just textile mills (eg: steel, lumber, paper) before computer controls were introduced. However, it appears that the idea of using them in computing devices is actually older than that.

  • 2
    If I could upvote again, I would - just because of the mention of Countess Lovelace. She is so often overlooked.
    – Kobunite
    Jul 17, 2013 at 13:29
  • 2
    Well, Ada happens to be my favorite language, so I've had occasion to read up a lot on its namesake. She had a lot more to do with Babbage's work than she's usually given credit for.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 17, 2013 at 13:58
  • 1
    I agree, she's very rarely given the credit she deserves. I was lead to her when reading up on Turing.
    – Kobunite
    Jul 17, 2013 at 14:19
  • Great answer, thank you. My reading could have been about steel mills, I need to go further in the subject
    – Voitcus
    Jul 17, 2013 at 16:20
  • 1
    the Jacquard loom was actually invented in France, not England, and first used there (it was actually based on a 1740s design).
    – jwenting
    Jul 18, 2013 at 8:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.