Synthetic Dye

As the Industrial Revolution gained steam (OK – bad pun), England’s population became denser. Eventually, the resulting pools of water bred mosquitos that eventually became a malaria epidemic.

Perkin, a 15-year-old student, ran crude experiments to create lower-cost quinine, a malaria medicine. One of his processes accidentally produced a strong purple liquid. Useless as a medicine, Perkin suspected it might work as a fabric dye.

Expensive and difficult to produce fabric dyes, that produced dull colors which faded fast, dominated before Perkin. Purple was especially difficult to produce, so expensive only royalty and the extremely wealthy wore purple clothing. Perkins innovation lowered the cost and increased the quality of eyes.

However, Perkin’s inexpensive dye not only created a strong purple color but it also withstood sun and repeat washing. He abandoned his studies, patented his dye at the age of 18, and opened a dye factory. Bright colors for the inexpensive cotton fabric, produced by the machines of the Industrial Revolution, became commonplace.

Perkin eventually created more artificial dyes and, later, perfumes. His dye factory was a commercial success. The Perkin Medal, named after him, remains a prestigious award for industrial chemists.

Programmable Machine (Jacquard Loom)

The Jacquard Loom is a seminal invention in the history of modern computers. Automation technology existed long before the loom but the automation was simple repetition. For example, pull the loom up, push a thread through, pull the loom down, and push another thread through then repeat. Different color threads might be used on different spools to create basic stripes but the looms were limited in their inability to actively change.

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Jacquard Loom with punch cards

The Jacquard Loom is inherently different. It used a series of punchcards to control the threads. Each card pushed through a different pattern. When combined, the output fabric left elaborate patterns.

The Jacquard Loom established that the steps an automation machine took need not be a simple repetition but might, instead, but a long and complex series of instructions.

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Jacquard Loom doing its thing

Jacquard’s programmable loom wove different patterns, just like modern computer chips run different instructions in a program. A quick clarification: even though you do not see it, your computer has a central brain that performs instructions depending upon the data set to it. It is like an electronic loom except it outputs electrical signals rather than controlling the threads of a loom. Where a loom might have a few hundred threads, most computer chips have the electronic equivalent of hundreds of millions or even billions.

However, the loom was not simply an interesting science experiment. It vastly decreased the price of patterned fabrics.

Napoleon granted a patent to the city of Lyon, where he lived, and awarded Jacquard a lifelong pension of 3,000 francs plus a 50 franc royalty for each loom purchased and used between 1805 and 1811. Jacquard did well but the government seems to have done better.

Early computers used punched-out cards that looked eerily similar to that used by Jacquard. Where his loom used the punched-out patterns to control a loom, the computer punch-cards controlled the flow of electricity through a computer, feeding it both programs and data to process.

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Jacquard Loom control card
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Computer punch card

Stocking Frame (Mechanical Knitter)

The first automated knitting machine; one of the key pieces of equipment that kicked off the Industrial Revolution.

The Stocking Frame copies the hand movements of a tradesperson, knitting far faster than a person could. The machine worked with both wool, which tended to produce coarse but inexpensive fabric, and also silk. When cotton became more common, the Frame knitted inexpensive cotton stockings.

The stocking frame caused a certain amount of social upheaval, leading to the creation of the anti-automation Luddites. This was a group of people who strongly opposed automation, led by the likely mythical Ned Ludd. Luddites play a recurring role through innovations over time, especially innovations related to automation.

Like many inventors, Lee made little money from his innovation and — despite that it would go down in history as a bedrock of the future — he died with little money.