From Carillon to IBM

The musical roots of information technology

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4.  Conclusions: closing the circle

I believe that the form of programmable information representation used in these mechanical automata is not substantially different from the electronic versions based on perforated paper representation (punched cards) since Hollerith’s pioneering work of the late 19th century (efforts, as we saw, that led to a company later merged into IBM). The similarity could, of course, be accidental, but actually there appears to be complete historical continuity, which will lead to my ultimate conclusion that modern information technology has its origin not in arithmetic and calculations, but in the late-medieval breakthrough that led to the development of musical automata during the next six centuries.  

We have already mentioned the almost generally accepted fact that the idea of Hollerith’s pre-IBM punched cards was derived from  what could be found in the Jacquard looms. So, in order to establish complete historical continuity from late-medieval bell tower to IBM, the only thing we have to do is to show that Jacquard and the weaving industry got the idea of programming with perforated paper from the 18th-century automated music industry. This is most definitely the case!  

The fact of the matter is that Jacquard was not the real inventor of programming with punched paper. He was only perfecting and patenting a method that had been under development since about 1725 in the weaving industry of the Lyon area. It is assumed that the honor of the invention should go to an almost forgotten hero, Basile Bouchon, who was a textile worker in Lyon. The fact that closes the circle is that Bouchon was the son of an organ maker and familiar with the fact that the information content for the cylinders of musical automata was first laid-out on paper before the design was applied to actual -expensive- cylinders. The practice was to punch holes in the paper designs that were wrapped around the cylinders, These holes indicated where the craftsman had to drill holes in the cylinder for the pegs. Voilà! Bouchon had the brilliant insight that the paper layout with punched holes already contained the information put on the cylinder. So, he concluded that perforated paper could code information about patterns, which he subsequently applied to the coding of weaving patterns for the looms of Lyon.  

Bouchon used a roll of paper, which was not very practical.  In 1728, Jean-Baptiste Falcon, a co-worker of Bouchon in Lyon, replaced the paper roll by a set of punched cards attached to one another, which made it possible to change the program rapidly. Curiously, the idea of punched cards to represent patterns was further only developed in the weaving industry. Such was the force of the tradition of the pegged cylinder in music representation that it took at least another 150 years before programming by perforated paper returned to its origin, namely the automation of musical instruments.  

One wonders how the recording of music would have developed if punched paper designs had been applied to music automation as well in the 1720s of Bouchon and Falcon (the era of Bach and Handel!). When the great versatilty of punched paper representation finally made it to the world of automated music in the 1880s and 1890s (with organ books and piano rolls), it was in a way too late, because the whole idea became rapidly obsolete thanks to the development of the gramophone. Only in recent times, with the help of the computer, the charms of automated music are rediscovered at a so far modest scale (with pioneers like Yamaha, cooperating with the Utrecht museum).  

I would like to conclude now with some general observations. Information technology is based on the programming of arbitrary representations ("code", like pins on a shaft) that can, via their output connections, be applied to everything with a pattern. In this modern sense, information technology was not invented in the 20th century but in the late Middle Ages, as an outgrowth of the information-carrying capacity of the camshaft. This was for the first time fully realized in the 14th century, in the automation of musical instruments, particularly of automatic carillons and organs. All of this happened within the context of the most advanced technology of those days, as found in and around the clockwork. Information technology was not something added to mechanical technology at some later time, but it was part and parcel of it right from the beginning (since the 13th century). There is complete conceptual and historical continuity in representation method from the medieval repinnable cylinders, via the looms of Bouchon, Falcon and Jacquard, to the use of punched cards for tabulation by Herman Hollerith in the late 19th century.  

Before the arrival of the personal computer, computers were in most people’s minds mainly associated with the scientific and administrative world of  arithmetic and calculation. Since the development of multi-media applications during the 1990s, everybody has become familiar with the idea that computers are not just about scientific or administrative calculation, but about the programming and manipulation of everything with regular patterns, not only as found in arithmetic but also in the colorful world of sound, image and the arts.  

Also, most books on the history of automatic computation are written by authors with a mathematical background and therefore perhaps focused on early calculating devices, from the designs of Pascal and Leibniz, to the huge mechanical computers of Charles Babbage in the 19th century. From a historical point of view, this view of the origin of the computer is a distortion. It is truly exciting to realize that the multi-media applications of information technology came first. The real beginnings are to be found in our singing towers and in the genius and dedication of the numerous anonymous craftsmen who, with their unforgettable marvels of ingenuity, sought to please the ear, the eye and the heart.


(fruits on tray with musical automata inside, Utrecht museum)


Last modified: 28 Aug 2003

Text and photographs © Jan Koster 2003. No part of this article nor any images may be used, reprinted or reproduced without written permission from the author (


First of all I would like to thank the National Museum Van Speelklok tot Pierement in Utrecht for their guided tours and for their generous permission for me to take pictures in the museum. Apart from limited personal experience with the automata described, I learned much from the Utrecht museum guide and from Jan Jaap Haspels, Automatic Musical Instruments: Their Mechanics and Their Music 1580-1820. Dissertation Utrecht University, 1987.

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