More Punchycards

A couple of weeks ago I made a quick impromptu trip up to the town of Macclesfield, just south of Manchester. I went to see this:


Now that’s an actual punchycard room! It’s the Paradise Silk Mills, which is more than worth a visit, if you’re nearby (call first though, their opening hours are brief). Those are some of the 26 beautiful Jacquard looms, they worked away there for a hundred years up until the 1930s.  They all still work, though very slowly– a couple of inches a day! Because it’s hard to get someone to stand and push them back and forth these days.. More punchcards, this is an all-automatic modernish one:

(you can see a mechanical card one working here, which is pretty speedy, but nowadays they’ve done away with the cards all together, and go straight from the computer, they go like the very Dickens)

I was almost as fascinated by the machines used to punch the cards as the looms themselves- this marvellous thing is a ‘piano-type’ puncher. The treadle moves the card forward and you read the pattern of the sheet, and use the keyboard to punch it in, one line at a time. The spacing of the holes is called the ‘pitch’, you can ‘tune’ the puncher to the ‘pitch’ of the particular looms, this one is tuned to Macclesfield pitch of course:


They also had this fancy thing for lacing together the cards!

In the mill itself, there was a separate room for the designer and the puncher, with skylights, lovely space– you can see the piano punch in the background:

There were no cats! But it was impossible not to imagine Lovelace in her own elegant skylit programming room, up there at the very top of the engine… Of course she would need something much more elaborate! The stops are all her shortcuts naturally.




  1. E.S. on November 2, 2013 at 11:41 pm

    Looking back at this item, I think you might like to know of the Almgren jacquard silk-weaving loom, still operated in Stockholm. They have a museum. Here is a brief video someone took of the loom in operation.

    (Careful. The rhythm of the operation of the loom may earworm you with Queen.

    (I went to the museum years ago to see this loom, but forty-five stultifying minutes into a lecture on the history of silk weaving (globally) with no end on the horizon, I and a small group of others bailed, as it seemed that they were not actually going to show us the loom in operation; it seems the exhibition has been improved since then.)

  2. Clare on May 7, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    I’d guess that you already know about this, but just in case…

    Kind of gruesome, but over at The Public Domain Review they have photos of the brain of Charles Babbage – illustration plates from a “Description of the Brain of Mr. Charles Babbage, F.R.S” published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (1909).

    Love your wonderful drawings and characters!

  3. Mathieu Gariépy on April 29, 2013 at 7:05 am

    I absolutly LOVE the way you draw cats! I hope to see these little devils again in your next stories.

  4. jon on April 27, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    Your sketch is just the image I have of my Aunt Cornelia, hard at work at the business end of her church organ, with all the stops out naturally, rattling the place to the heavens.

  5. Brian Biddle on April 22, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    It seems ironic that the most well known use of punch cards from the Victorian era is in music. From the humble barrel organs to the mighty Wurlitzer and other traction engine powered fairground organs. Babbage would have hated it.

  6. John on April 17, 2013 at 9:19 pm

    Miniature cast iron Doric columns on the piano type punchycard puncher. Fabulous.

    Respect to the Victorians.

  7. Robin on April 15, 2013 at 8:00 am

    We went there with primary school (I may still have the commemorative pencil rubber some where!) I recall there was still an active weaving mill in Macc when I was little (and I’m not that old), you could here the powerlooms when walking past.
    Next time you’re in the vicinity you should see Styal Mill near Wilmslow and MOSI in Manchester… and the Queens Arms in Bosley…

  8. GL on April 14, 2013 at 4:59 pm

    Very apt to come ’round here just before the death of a certain Iron Lady, who did her upmost to destroy all remains of the once-glorious industrial tradition of these lands… We’re left with a bunch of museums and stuff like this, which will also disappear very soon in the storm of public cuts pushed through by Thatcher’s heirs. Anybody interested in British industrial history should come to the North West as soon as possible, really.

  9. sara on April 14, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    Oh I wish I could go and see it in person. It looks wonderful.

    On an unrealted note – I don’t know if you saw the Ted talk about the “Philosophical Breakfast Club” given by Laura Snyder.
    Babbage was a member of the club. I thought her calling them that was something you would enjoy.

  10. John on April 14, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    Lacing the cards together seems like cheating, doesn’t it? Today, you don’t need to be careful not to drop the box of cards. Soon, you won’t be able to type at all, and need some sort of metaphorical interface. And from there, complete chaos!