Friday, August 24, 2012

The First Programmable Robot You've Never Heard of

As I was visiting the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers museum of Technology (CNAM) in Paris the other day, I came upon a loom that I don't think I have ever heard of before. Back in 1740's, a man by the name of Jacques de Vaucanson devised an automated weaving process and according to Wikipedia:
His proposals for the automation of the weaving process, although ignored during his lifetime, were later perfected and implemented by Joseph Marie Jacquard, the creator of the Jacquard loom.
From that explanation one could infer that it was just an earlier design for a Jacquard loom. It doesn't seem to be the case however:

Please note the punch card mechanism at the top of this 1740's machine. Next to the loom, there is a  description note in French and English. However the English version is only an subset of the better explanation provided in French. Here is my poor translation of the French text that is not provided in the English description:

A real automated weaving machine, the loom starts operating thanks to a simple handle and therefore radically transforms the gestures of the weaver. In 1747, The newspaper "Le Mercure de France" recounts the following: " One can see the whole cloth being fabricated without any human intervention, i.e. one can see the chain [sic] open, then the shuttle throws the frame, then the clapper hits the cloth with more accuracy than possible with the human hand"

The loom remained a prototype with no direct descendant. The mechanics inspired other inventors like Jacquard who did put it back in shape at the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers at the beginning of the 19th century.

Let me get this straight, a fully programmable robot saw the light of the day in 1747 never to be directly copied later because it took jobs away from humans ? I did not know that, and I don't think I am the only one. The Jacquard loom was "inspired" by this machine and was successful a full sixty years later in part because it required human intervention.    

Cute story added: According to our tour guide, since the Vaucanson design required only a power source and no human intervention, many loom prototypes were destroyed by weavers who could become out of work had the machine been adopted. .The story goes that to destroy the looms the workers used their wooden shoes (called sabot in French) and this is why the word sabotage is used when referring to the  destruction of a piece of machinery. 

Second cute story added: Also according to our guide, the expression "etre un ane" (to be a donkey, i.e. being dumb) comes from the fact that skilled workers who used to work with weaving machines were facing being in direct competition with the unskilled labor of  a power source (generally provided by a donkey).

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