Throughout History and Now

What did ancient people try to accomplish when they deliberately made clothes that contained meaning? For one thing, it must have been to mark or announce information.  Twenty thousand years B.C. a small, plump Venus donned a string skirt to announce her readiness for childbearing and in the mountains of South Central Asia, a Kafir woman wore a distinctive headdress for a few days each month to indicate that she was now a woman.

 Cloth could also be used as a mnemonic device to record events and other data.  Social rank too, has probably always been encoded through symbols in material, design, colour and embellishment of the clothing.  In Ancient Rome the emperor and no other enjoyed the privilege of wearing entirely purple robes.  Hanging up a distinctive textile could be a way of making ordinary space special, even sacred.  In Southern Sumatra a special ritual cloth was placed as a backdrop in important rites of passage ceremonies.  And the vision of Henry VIII and his ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ remains a vivid image in the minds of many British schoolchildren cheering at the British King who was grander and more stylish than his French counterpart.


Thirdly, fabric design has been used to invoke magic – to protect, to secure fertility and riches, to divine the future, perhaps even to curse. Within that magical world, fertility, prosperity and protection were three of the most common objectives.  Images of snakes, frogs and fish (egg layers all) incorporated into woven cloth were thought to bring wealth and fertility to a household in many parts of Europe.


The Slavic Goddess Berehinia – Protectress of women and their fertility displaying birds in her hands

 But Europe had no monopoly on mystical, protective images on cloth and clothing.  In Egypt, Tutankhamon’s tomb was found to contain a wealth of royal cloth, in particular a richly decorated tunic, with a neckhole forming an ‘ankh’ (or sign of long life) with his name embroidered at the centre of the cross and surrounded by the traditional ‘cartouche’ (a protective oval made by a magic rope), and at the bottom of the tunic panels embroidered with an array of real and mythical beasts (thought to be of Syrian workmanship) are all designed to ease his journey into the afterlife.

 More structural approaches to working magic have been devised with folktales telling of magic girdles where the magic seems to be inherent in the weaving, not merely in special decoration.  One possibility was to weave in the spell as number magic; in the Netherlands experts have unearthed cloth where the weaver has chosen red wool warp threads for her work, twenty four spun one direction, and twenty four spun the other way.  Opposite spins catch the light differently and, when placed next to each other, give a striped effect.  She divided the bunch spun one way into three sets of eight, and the other bunch into four sets of six, and alternated them. It can’t be a coincidence that in Holland, Germany and Denmark those numbers were considered particularly sacred.  The scheme is best known from the runic alphabet, which at first consisted of twenty four letters in three sets of eight, and later of thirty two letters in four sets of eight.  It is assumed that number magic began with the introduction of Mithraism into those countries via the Romans; Mithraic religion from the Near East is just packed full of number magic. 

 The Batak tribes of Sumatra generated woven magic another way; in one area the women wove special magical cloths on circular warps, which were never cut because the continuity of the warp cloth across the gap where the wool had not been woven in, was said to ensure the continuity of life from the mother to the child.  The birth of the child was represented by the beginning of the weft at one side of the uncut fringe; drawing the cloth through the hands of the weaver represented the child growing up, and when the other side of the uncut fringe was reached, it represented the beginning of a new generation whose life would repeat that of the mother, and so on ad infinitum.   Biblical students will remember that Jesus’ garment was removed from his body uncut “in accordance with the scriptures”, a possible reference to this custom?

But these magic numbers, symbols, and methods of weaving depended largely on the wearers and viewers buying into the myth of the magic woven into the cloth which they were conditioned to believe.  It was not until the twenty first century that actual magic became available to inventive weavers worldwide.  Conductive fibre or elements; computer circuitry and electronics; laser optics and speakers would mark the next stage for this fabricated messaging. Value Added Fabric can communicate, transform, conduct energy, grow, medicate, play music or identify friend or foe.  It is used for astronaught suits as it can inflate or deflate, be heated or cooled down, be lit up in dark outer space, and can incorporate infra-red digital displays and alarms.

Smart fabrics are set to transform the fashion industry and allow us to download new styles for our clothes rather than buying new garments.  “Micro-robotics, 3D printing and rapid changes in technology are poised to revolutionise fashion,”  says the designer of Lady Gaga’s bubble-blowing dress ‘Anemone’, and ‘Volantis’ her flying dress powered by twelve electric motor-driven rotors.

lady gaga 2

 Electronic conducting textiles have the ability to make music.  One example is the electric gloves that allow people to interact with their computer remotely via hand gestures, beautiful gloves that help the wearer gesturally interact with their computer and technology allows for a performance without having to interact with or physically touch, keyboards or control panels.

 The new generation of weavers will double as medics, technicians, artists, designers, spacemen, nutritionists, image consultants and, of course, scientists.  What will be next?  How much more inventive we can get?  Maybe they will be able to realise what only those imaginative writers of the TV series Star Trek, way back in the sixties, had thought possible; maybe the next big thing is Transportation Suits where we can wear a piece of clothing that will jumble our atoms and ‘beam us up’ to new and unexplored parts of the universe, or even to different time zones?  But what happens when those suits gets hacked or infected with malicious Ransomware?  Back down to earth or lost in time and space?  



String is thought to be the earliest manufactured thread and has been described as the unseen weapon that allowed the human race to conquer the earth.  String can be used for carrying, holding, tying and trapping, securing and decoration.  Textiles underlie the great prints and canvases of Western Art and form a surface to write upon. Paper nowadays is largely made of wood pulp but is still made in the traditional manner with the fibres from plants in specialist paper mills; these fibres are pulped and bleached, washed and dried and then filtered onto a mesh and compressed onto a fine felt. 

 Sophisticated textile production dates to six thousand years B. C., in southern regions of Europe, and four thousand B.C. Egyptian women were weaving linen on horizontal looms.  Archaeologists have unearthed fabric and rope fragments that date as far back as twelve thousand years in the past, making them the oldest known textiles in South America.  In China, where the spinning wheel is thought to have first turned, sophisticated drawlooms had woven designs that used thousands of different warps.  These prehistoric weavers seem to have produced cloths of extraordinary complexity, woven with ornate designs far in excess of the simple need to cover and protect bodies or to provide warmth and comfort for their dwelling places.


The production of ‘homespun’ yarn and cloth was one of the first cottage industries, pin money was women’s earliest source of independent cash and women were selling surplus yarn and cloth, working as small-scale entrepreneurs, long before the emergence of factories or the mechanisms which now define the textile industry.

There were other spin offs from textiles too.  The weaving of complex designs demanded far more than one pair of hands, and textiles production tends to be communal, sociable work allowing plenty of occasion for gossip and chat.  Weaving was already multimedia:  singing, chanting, telling stories, dancing, and playing games whilst they worked; these spinsters, weavers and needlewomen were literally networkers as well, spinning yarns, fabricating fiction and fashioning fashion.  The textures of woven cloth functioned as a means of communication and information storage too, long before anything was written down. 

Weaving is often used to mark or announcer information and a mnemonic device to record events and other data.  Textiles do communicate in terms of the images which appear on the right side of the cloth, but this is only the most superficial sense in which they process and store data.  Because there is no difference between the process of weaving and the woven design.  Cloth persists as records of the process which fed into their production; how many women worked on them, the techniques they used and the skills they employed.  The visible pattern is integral to the process which produced it, the programme and the pattern are continuous. 


The lozenge motif dates as far back as the Neolithic and Paleolithic period and is tied to human fertility and land. The binary male and female principles serve as the basis for deciphering the meaning of this symbol. It consists of two triangles. But in the pre-Ukrainian period, it was believed that the woman held the three corners of the lozenge (the three corners of the home), while the man held the fourth, which completed the integrity of the family. A lozenge with a dot in the middle symbolizes a sown field, which meant abundance and prosperity.  In addition to simple lozenges, we often see rhombuses with hooks (tiny horns) in Ukrainian embroidery. This design is called “zhaba” (frog) and symbolizes fertility. In ancient beliefs, this little creature was linked to heavenly moisture that gives life.

Lozenge-shaped patterns were embroidered on wedding towels and bridal gowns. Pregnant woman wore shirts covered with diamond patterns until childbirth as this symbol served as a powerful talisman.   

As the frantic activities of generations of spinsters and weaving women make clear, nothing stops when a piece of work has been finished off.  Even when magical connections are not explicitly invoked, the finished cloth – unlike the painting or the text, is almost incidental in relation to the process of its production.  The only incentive to cast off seems to be the chance it provides to start again, throw another shuttle and cast another spell. 





The development of computer software is a history strongly represented by women who have played significant rôles in its development. Ada Lovelace is the best known and Grace Hopper is also becoming a legend among the cognoscenti.   Less heralded by history was a group of six women who worked in wartime secrecy at the University of Pennsylvania, where John Mauchly and Presper Eckert led a team that was building ENIAC, the world’s first programmable, all-electronic, general-purpose computer.

 As ENIAC was being constructed at Penn in 1945, it was thought that it would perform a specific set of calculations over and over, such as determining a missile’s trajectory using different variables. But the end of the war meant that the machine was needed for many other types of calculations—sonic waves, weather patterns, and the explosive power of atom bombs—that would require it to be reprogrammed often.

This entailed switching around by hand ENIAC’s rat’s nest of cables and resetting its switches. At first the programming seemed to be a routine, perhaps even menial task, which may have been why it was relegated to women, who back then were not encouraged to become engineers. But what the women of ENIAC soon showed, and the men later came to understand, was that the programming of a computer could be just as significant as the design of its hardware.

The tale of Jean Jennings is illustrative of the early women computer programmers. She was born on a farm on the outskirts of Alanthus Grove, Maryville, into a family that had almost no money but deeply valued education. When Jean finished college in January 1945, her calculus teacher showed her a flier soliciting women mathematicians to work at the University of Pennsylvania, where women were working as “computers”—humans who performed routine maths tasks. 

One of the ads read:

Wanted: Women with Degrees in Mathematics…Women are being offered scientific and engineering jobs where formerly men were preferred. Now is the time to consider your job in science and engineering…You will find that the slogan there as elsewhere is ‘Women Wanted’.

 When Jennings started work at Penn in March 1945 there were approximately seventy other women at Pennsylvania working on desktop adding machines and scribbling numbers on huge sheets of paper.  A few months after she arrived, a memo was circulated among the women advertising six job openings to work on the mysterious machine that was behind locked doors on the first floor of Penn’s Moore School of Engineering, the ENIAC. She had no idea what the job was or what the ENIAC was, all she hoped was that she might be getting in on the ground floor of something new.  She believed in herself and wanted to do something more exciting than calculating trajectories.

When Jean Jennings got that job she was set to work together with Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman, Betty Snyder, Frances Bilas, and Kay McNulty to figure out how the machine worked and then how to programme it.   They made careful diagrams and charts for each new configuration of cables and switches. What they were doing then was the beginning of a programme, though they did not yet have that word for it.

Around the same time that Grace Hopper was doing so at Harvard, the women of ENIAC were developing the use of subroutines. Because it was being used for atom bomb calculations and other classified tasks, ENIAC was kept secret until February 1946, when the Army and Penn scheduled a gala unveiling for the public and the press.  At the demonstration, ENIAC was able to spew out in 15 seconds a set of missile trajectory calculations that would have taken human computers several weeks. The women had programmed the ENIAC.  The unveiling of ENIAC made the front page of the New York Times under the headline ELECTRONIC COMPUTER FLASHES ANSWERS, MAY SPEED ENGINEERING.

Later Jennings complained, in the tradition of Ada Lovelace, that many of the newspaper reports overstated what ENIAC could do by calling it a giant brain and implying that it could think. The ENIAC wasn’t a brain in any sense, it couldn’t reason, as computers still cannot reason, but it could give people more data to use in reasoning.

That night there was a candlelit dinner at Pennsylvania’s venerable Houston Hall. It was filled with scientific luminaries, military brass, and most of the men who had worked on ENIAC. But Jean Jennings and Betty Snyder  were not there, nor were any of the other women programmers.

Shortly before she died in 2011, Jean Jennings reflected proudly on the fact that all the programmers who created the first general-purpose computer were women. It happened because a lot of women back then had studied maths, and their skills were in demand, she explained. There was also an irony involved, the boys with their toys thought that assembling the hardware was the most important task, and thus a man’s job. If the ENIAC’s administrators had known how crucial programming would be to the functioning of the electronic computer and how complex it would prove to be, they might have been more hesitant about giving such an important role to women.


Ever since the days of Charles Babbage the engineering of computer hardware has been dominated by men. The pioneers of software, however, were often women, beginning with Babbage’s friend and muse Ada, Countess of Lovelace. 

A century later, when the first electronic computers were being invented, the men were still focusing on the hardware, and many women followed in Ada’s footsteps. You probably don’t know the name Grace Hopper, but she should be a household name.  As a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, Hopper worked on the first computer, the Harvard Mark I and she headed the team that created the first compiler, which led to the creation of COBOL, a programming language that by the year 2000 accounted for 70 percent of all actively used code. Passing away in 1992, she left behind an inimitable legacy as a brilliant programmer and pioneering woman in male-dominated fields. 

Grace was curious as a child, a lifelong trait; at the age of seven she decided to determine how an alarm clock worked, and dismantled seven alarm clocks before her mother realized what she was doing (she was then limited to one clock.  She graduated from Vassar in 1928 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics and earned her master’s degree at Yale University in 1930.  In 1934, she earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale and her thesis, New Types of Irreducibility Criteria, was published that same year. Hopper began teaching mathematics at Vassar in 1931, and was promoted to associate professor in 1941. 

Grace was enigmatic, disruptive and ahead of her times.  On December 7th 1941 after Pear Harbour was bombed by the Japanese in the Second World War she joined the navy.  As a former Maths lecturer she was put to work on the Harvard Mark I, the 51 foot maths calculating machine.  She loved machines and considered the Mark I a beautiful machine.  She was good at making machines work.  Not interested in the parts of a computer that “you could kick” she was fascinated by what later came to be called Programming. The input system used in the Mark I was paper tape, a system in which you could physically punch your code out in the tape that was fed into the machine. 

Grace Hopper helped find a way in which a ball could be made to collapse in on itself, this was called the implosion problem and the solution to this problem ultimately created the nuclear bomb which was later dropped on Hiroshima in Japan.  

After the war she became Head of the Software Division for Eckert and Mauchly Comp, where as Head of the Software Division she popularized the idea of machine-independent programming languages, which led to the development of COBOL, one of the first high-level programming languages. She is credited with popularizing the term ‘debugging’” for fixing computer glitches, inspired by an actual moth removed from the computer. 

Grace Hopper worked in the male dominated world of computers all her life and had no truck with people who called her a Trail Blazer.  She didn’t admit that any trail needed to be blazed saying that if you work hard and are capable then recognition would follow.  It must have amused her when she was voted Computer Man of the Year. 

Always an independent thinker she hated the expression “But we’ve always done it that way” and visitors to her office would be perplexed and fascinated in equal measure by a clock on her wall that went backwards, “there is no reason why a clock should work one way or another” she would reason.  Grace Hopper has been described as appearing to be “‘all Navy’, but when you reach inside you find a ‘Pirate’ dying to be released” and it may be this reason that a Jolly Roger flag was always flying in her office or to highlight her ability to release information from the most  secure hideouts. 

In 2014 eight thousand people attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, and it was the world’s largest gathering of women technologists.  The George R. Brown Convention Centre, Houston Texas is the location for the 2015 Celebration and will be held from October 14th – 16th with more people expected to attend than ever before, her name may soon be recognised in ever more households.


November 2014

Yesterday I heard a very interesting radio 4 programme about Avatars.  Apparently the word Avatar was not conceived by a Hollywood film producer but comes from the Sanskrit word for ‘descent’.  It relates to when a deity manifests itself in an earthly embodiment.  In Christianity ‘incarnation’ describes the coming of the divine in bodily form to the world in which we inhabit.  Does this make Jesus an Avatar?  Some Hindu’s believe he was, along with Krishna and Rama, and the programme explored the parallels and distinctions between the two.

Also as new technologies offer the prospect of digital Avatars able to simulate our personalities in the online world after death, they discussed what such developments tell us about contemporary attitudes to life after death and immortality.

Millions of us interact with Avatars through computer games and online virtual worlds like ‘Second Life’ and it has become the buzz-word’ for a secular age. In a very subtle shift from the religious connotations of an Avatar being God taking human form to re-establish ways in which we can connect with him, to the contemporary meaning where we can be represented in a virtual environment through a simulacrum which can be considered the real us in a virtual existence in which we can live vicariously.

The logical progression of this will be creating our own Avatars and, the programme maintained, the technology will soon exist (estimated at within twenty years) to enable us to preserve our personalities and life stories, digitally.  It is not too far fetched, they said, for us soon to curate our own legacies which our children and grandchildren can access after our death so they will be able to react with us long after our own physical demise.

There are already 25, 000 people signed up to a library of clones site that promises to preserve their thoughts some time in the future.  At the moment this is just a matter of collecting information to store for when the time comes and robotic answers can be found to preserving their ‘real selves’.  So many questions arise from this prospect.  Is it actually desirable?  Who would ensure that these Avatars are authentic or just idolised personas? Who decides what part of our personalities are preserved?  And would this ‘break-through’ actually just perpetuate the grieving process preventing us from letting go of the dead?

Is it morally right to continue our existence beyond what it is supposed to be?  Death is important for life, because the fact of the finite time we have, forces us to make important decisions about what sorts of people we are here and now.  Death is not just extinction but an important boundary about what sort of person we want to be and forces us to behave and interact in a world that ensures we are those people.  If there was always a possibility that anything we physical did could be overwritten by this programme with the profile of an unfeasibly perfect person, who is to say some of us will not just cut ourselves off from the world and concentrate on fabricating a totally fictional character?

Moreover will we become scared of death, will we hide from it and immune ourselves to it?  Do Avatars, in fact, tranquilise us from the fact of death?  For me the question must be, what is in it for me?  And the answer can only be nothing, because even though our Avatars will contain our thoughts, personality and experiences, once we are dead will we not experience the relationship our loved ones are having with our Avatars, so what is the point?  I would much prefer to live my fallible life and let my friends and family remember me for the flawed human being I really am, and surely it would be better for them to come to terms with my death as quickly as possible and not prolong the parting with agonising conversations with what sounds like me but is in fact a simulacrum of me.  I will be far gone.


Old Looms

The loom was the first piece of automated machinery.  It was basically a simple system although it looks really complicated. There are horizontal rods, which connect with vertical rods with hooks. The horizontal rods interact with the punched cards which either have holes or un-perforated card (yes or no, on or off, one or zero, good or bad). If they move, then the vertical rod is moved. If the hook at the rod top is moved into the path of the griffe as it rises, then the hook is raised, and the thread is lifted. That creates the shed for the weft to pass through.

As a weaving system which withdrew control from human workers and transferred to the hardware of the machine, the Jacquard loom was bitterly opposed  by workers, who saw in this migration of control, a piece of their bodies literally transferred to the machine.  The Luddites opposed this automation and were supported in the House of Lords by the poet Lord Byron.

Charles Babbage, interested in the effects of automated machines on traditional forms of manufacture, published his research on the subject The Economies of Manufactures and Machinery in 1832.  He later said that looking back on the early factories was like seeing prototype ‘thinking machines’.

It was the Jacquard loom that excited and inspired Babbage (maker of the Difference Engine) who went on to build his Analytic engine, in which he was greatly helped by Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate daughter of previously mentioned Lord Byron. It was Ada who commented that if the Difference engine could simply add up, the Analytic Engine was capable of performing the whole of arithmetic.

Charles and Ada developed an intense relationship and in agreeing to write the footnotes to – and to translate from the Italian – Louis Menebrea’s Sketch of the Analytic Engine invented by Charles Babbage (1842) Ada produced the first example of what was later to be called ‘computer programming’.  The introduction of the principle which Jacquard devised for regulating his looms, the punched card, was copied by the pair to attain the varied and complicated processes required to fulfil the purposes of the Analytical Engine.

Old fashioned telephone exchange

Reality does not run along the neat straight lines of the printed page. Only by criss-crossing the complex topical landscape can the goals of multifacedness and the establishment of multiple connections begin to be attained.  Where there are a jumble of voices, ideas, and gossip, where there are people talking at the same time, where there is empathy and discourse, that’s where you‘ll find the real world of women.   The Internet shatters the myth that women are victims of technological change.  Weaving and typing, computing and telecommunicating, women have been tending the machinery of the digital age for generations, enjoying intimate relations with the techniques and technologies which are revolutionising the Western World today.

laptop and hands