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The surprising ties that bind your smartphone to textiles

Terms like ‘thread,’ ‘button,’ and ‘patch’ are linguistic leftovers from the days when our earliest computers were looms.

It's no coincidence that handicrafts and digital technologies share a lexicon.Дворецкая Таня/Adobe

Stillness permeated the university classroom as students worked in hushed concentration trying to thread needles that, to their confusion, I had just distributed. This was a course on electronic communication, after all, not hand stitching. So why was I asking them to make colorful weavings using looms jerry-rigged from old Cheez-It and Cheerios boxes? Had I not realized that only a handful had ever before threaded a needle? Why was I pushing them beyond their haptic comfort zones of touch screens and swipes to make them handle needle and thread?

“This makes me feel so dumb,” one exasperated student said.

My goal was not to make my students feel unskilled. I sought instead to use string as a tool and weaving as a platform to reveal to them the surprising roots of modern-day computing.

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With Jacquard’s patented innovation, beautifully woven tapestries, clothing, and textiles were available even to those on a budget. Pictured: An illustration of the Jacquard loom from 1804. Archivist/Adobe

The Jacquard loom is the unlikely precursor to the earliest computer models. In France in the early 1800s, Joseph Marie Jacquard improved on the innovations of loom makers before him with a punch-card system that made it possible to mechanize and mass produce such intricate woven designs as brocade, damask, and matelassé. With Jacquard’s patented innovation, beautifully woven tapestries, clothing, and textiles were no longer the exclusive domain of the wealthy.

The same punch-card technology inspired the earliest visions for computers, including the Analytical Engine, which was conceptualized by Englishman Charles Babbage in the 1830s.

And this is where a young mathematical wunderkind who happened also to be the daughter of poet Lord Byron comes in. By dint of her marriage to the 1st Earl of Lovelace, she also had an excellent aristocratic name. Née Ada Byron, the young Countess of Lovelace had been an acolyte of Babbage’s since she was a teenager. In a paper she published in 1843, Lovelace expanded on Babbage’s conceptual model of the never-built Analytical Engine. An appendix of the paper, “Note G,” in which Lovelace ponders how the Analytical Engine “weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves,” is considered the first computer program, and Lovelace, thus, the first computer programmer.

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In 1804, Joseph Marie Jacquard improved on the innovations of loom makers before him with a punch-card system that made it possible to mechanize and mass produce intricate woven designs.M-Production/Adobe

Were you aware of this textile-digital history? My students were not, even though the lexicon of early textile manufacturing is woven into the language we use in reference to our digital devices.

Consider texting “threads.” Perhaps you have “stitched” one video to another on TikTok. Or, if you’re in the field of computer science, you may have “patched” an operating system update to protect it against security flaws. You may have “pinned” an important message in your inbox.

This connection between the tactile and the technological is rich with metaphor, and it reinforces Lovelace’s recognition that computing and weaving are pattern-building systems. The connection is so ingrained in how we think about new technologies that we inherently cite the tools and techniques of textiles in reference to various tech functionalities.

The linguistic leap from the textile-tactile to the digital offers intuitive ways to understand new technologies. Consider your phone’s home “button” — another textile reference. When The Wall Street Journal’s personal-tech reporter Dalvin Brown described it in 2022 as “the first smartphone feature you never had to learn to use,” he was offering us a self-explanatory shorthand: You touch a “button” for digital access. And when the actual button was removed from the iPhone in 2017, an assistive-touch feature in settings allowed users to activate a virtual likeness for those who preferred a button to a swipe.

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A plaque for Ada, Countess of Lovelace, in London.ChrisDorney/Adobe

That the language of modern technologies and time-honored handicraft practices remains one and the same is something that Lovelace’s work anticipated. As a woman of her time and station, her deep investigations of mathematical questions set her apart. One sees the connection between the algebraical patterns that she identified and her handicrafts. In the biography “Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist,” authors Christopher Hollings, Ursula Martin, and Adrian Rice recount an exchange between Lovelace and Mary Somerville, a scientist, mathematician, and mentor, in which Somerville comments on Lovelace’s handwork in connection with her scientific pursuits: “I am very much delighted to have a cap made by you and the more so as it shows [that] we mathematicians can do other things besides studying xes and ys.”

Lovelace died at 36 from uterine cancer. Beyond her scientific legacy, she also laid the foundation for the primacy of handwork, tactile objects, and craft production that is threaded throughout the entirety of human experiences — online and IRL, too.

Hinda Mandell is a professor in the School of Communication at Rochester Institute of Technology and the editor of “Crafting Dissent: Handicraft as Protest from the American Revolution to the Pussyhats.”