Jacquard's Web by James Essinger, Oxford University Press. Hardback ISBN 0192805770, £14.99.


When invited to review Jacquard's Web, I admit that I had to google (v.t., Macmillan English Dictionary) James Essinger. I discovered, with some misgivings, that he has published more than 25 management books with titles such as The Investment Manager's Handbook and Virtual Financial Services. However, I also found a claim that he is good at making technical issues accessible, and indeed he is. Better still, Essinger turns out to be an accomplished storyteller.

Jacquard's Web is an intricate tale of inventors and inventions, starting almost three centuries ago among the silk-weavers of Lyons, France, and ending today, or rather tomorrow, among computer users worldwide. Well researched, the narrative traces a chain of links between Jacquard's silk-weaving loom and modern computers. Most of the techniques involved are adequately explained, even if occasionally with fuzzy accuracy (a pixel, whether on a screen or in woven cloth, has more than two possible states), but Essinger presents this particular technological evolution from a socio-economical standpoint, and here his familiarity with the business world and its denizens clearly adds value.

The story tells of the achievements and frustrations of a motley collection of characters, who between them took the punched card about as far as it could go. We find out about Joseph-Marie Jacquard, son of a Lyons master weaver, who cunningly avoided execution as a counter-revolutionary and went on to benefit from Napoleon's imperial boost to science and technology; Charles Babbage, a Victorian gentleman of private means, who outlived the largesse of a government that funded his developments of some of the most complicated unbuilt machines ever imagined; Ada, Countess of Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron and steadfast believer in Babbage, a scientifically minded lady born long before her time; Herman Hollerith, a mechanical engineer more at ease with cogs than commerce, who nonetheless became successful and wealthy thanks to his exploitation of Jacquard's concepts; and finally Thomas Watson, businessman par excellence, patron saint of salesmen and father of IBM.

The automated loom technology patented by Jacquard in 1804 was born of a need to increase production of the exquisite silk fabrics so coveted by France's aristocracy, and to create whatever pattern the customer desired - roses today, lilies tomorrow. The breakthrough came with the use of punched cards to store instructions for controlling the "pick" - the number and position of warp threads to be lifted for each row woven. The result was an astonishing 24-fold increase over the inch of cloth per day that a weaver and draw-boy could produce.

Thereafter, the humble punched card was pivotal to most of the inventions described, controlling the cogwheels of Babbage's would-be Analytical Engine, storing data for Hollerith's automatic information processing of US and Russian census returns, and governing the operation of tabulators, comptometers and early computers. Indeed, IBM's very last punched card was produced as late as 1984.

Instead of Jacquard's Web, this book could aptly have been titled Pieces of Cardboard that Changed the World. As well as looms and computers, the author recalls the notorious "hanging chads" of Florida, those parts of the stiff cards that didn't always fall away from holes punched by voters in the 2000 presidential election.

With the advent of electronics, magnetic tapes and disks, Essinger has increasing difficulty arguing for one-to-one associations between looms and modern computers; Tim Berners-Lee might take umbrage, were that his nature, at the suggestion that "it is not stretching credibility too far to describe the internet itself [sic] as Jacquard's Web". The final chapter, speculating on the future, is rather untidy, unnecessary and much weaker than the others. But never mind - the others are all good, packed with facts and anecdotes, agreeably illustrated, highly informative and subtly amusing.
Peggie Rimmer.

Faster Than The Speed of Light - The Story of a Scientific Speculation by João Magueijo, Arrow Books. Paperback ISBN 0099428083, £8.99.
Cosmologist João Magueijo certainly believes in rocking the boat. This is his first book, but he is happy to propose theories that challenge the fundamentals of physics. He also challenges the institution of science itself - so much so, that a long-time collaborator had to point out that a reference letter for a PhD student was not an appropriate forum for insulting the establishment.

So what is Magueijo's theory? Simply, that the speed of light, one of the fundamental constants in our model of the universe, may not be as constant as we have assumed. Working through explanations of relativity and modern cosmology - often featuring a cow called Cornelia - he introduces the science of his Variable Speed of Light (VSL) theories, but it is the personal element that makes the book unusual. Here, Magueijo really brings us two books: one is popular science, and the other is about the day-to-day process of science, a human drama full of dreams, allegiances and betrayals. This section is likely to surprise members of the public as much as it makes scientists chuckle (or grimace) in sympathy with the story Magueijo has to tell.

In an unusual display of emotion, Magueijo attacks everything from the management of his university (which he suggests blowing up for the good of science) to journal reviewers (whose reports, he claims, often contain only 1% science). He avoids sounding bitter only because he compliments the same groups he criticises, remarking that his university has "perhaps the best scientific environment in the world", despite his views on how it is run. The book ends on an uncertain note, its VSL theories widely discussed but as yet unproven. Magueijo is not precious about his creation, or worried about humiliation if he is proved wrong. He believes that trying out new ideas is crucial to science. This aside, it is Magueijo's unsanitized portrayal of science that will surprise and entertain his readers.
Owen Appleton.