The story of the computer begins with weaving. Textiles, dating back to prehistoric times, are among the earliest examples of advanced mathematics. While modern manufacturing has sped up textile production and chemistry has introduced new synthetic fibers and dyes, the actual construction of cloth has changed very little over the course of thousands of years. The oldest and most basic weave structures—plain weave, twill, and satin—are still the most commonly used. This groundwork, laid down by ancient weavers, created the foundation for future technological advances.
When Charles Babbage (1792–1871), the inventor of the first computer, began working on his Analytical Engine in 1837, he studied the mechanics of the Jacquard loom. Conceived thirty years prior by Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752–1834), the Jacquard loom was controlled by a chain of punch cards, which allowed for automation that rapidly increased production. Each punched hole corresponded with the raising of an individual warp thread; the repetition of threads raising (or not raising) creates a cloth’s intricate pattern.
Babbage borrowed the Jacquard loom’s punch-card system for his Analytical Engine. While the machine was never made due to lack of funding, Babbage’s design was a critical turning point in the development of the modern computer. From the 1940s through the mid-1980s, computers most commonly processed and stored data by means of punch cards.
Video Weavings (1973-1976) by pioneering computer artist Stephen Beck was influenced by the binary logic of weaving and computing. Beck’s vision was to play video (light) like a musician plays live music. He devised a digital video synthesizer capable of processing video in real time. His algorithm, which he refers to as Chromatic Numerical Sequencing, assigns colors to numbers and systematically moves pixels up, down, and across the screen. This is synchronized to great effect, such that the pixels appear to “weave” a virtual cloth.
Beck based Video Weavings on the concept of weaving, but the universality of the geometric patterns was a happy accident—only apparent once the algorithm was processed. Across cultures, regularities in pattern design exist. These patterns emerged independently and concurrently with one another, affirming the fundamental inclination for a coded graphic language, a language based on mathematics and logic, zeros and ones.
Video: © 1975, 2013 Stephen Beck.