by Jo Brodie and Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London
Weaving, in the form of the Jacquard loom, with its swappable punch cards controlling the loom’s patterns inspired Charles Babbage. He intended to use the same kind of punch card to store programs in his Analytical Engine, which had it been built would have been the first computer. However, weaving had a much more direct use in computing history. Weaving helped get us to the Moon.
In the 1960s, NASA’s Apollo moon mission needed really dependable computers. It was vital that the programs wouldn’t be corrupted in space. The problem was solved using core rope memory.
Core rope memory was made of small ‘eyelets’ or beads of a metal called ferrite that can be magnetised and copper wire which was woven through some of the eyelets but not others. The ring-shaped magnets were known as magnetic cores. An electrical current passing through the wires made the whole thing work.
Both data and programs in computers are stored as binary: 1s and 0s. Those 1s and 0s can be represented by physical things in the world in lots of different ways. NASA used weaving. A wire that passed through an eyelet would be read as a binary 1 when the current was on but if it passed around the eyelet then it would be read as 0. This meant that a computer program, made up of sequences of 1s and 0s, could be permanently stored by the pattern that was woven. This gave read-only memory. Related techniques were used to create memory that the computer could change too, as the guidance computer needed both.
The memory was woven for NASA by women who were skilled textile workers. They worked in pairs using a special hollow needle to thread the copper wire through one magnetic core and then the other person would thread it back through a different one.
The program was first developed on a computer (the sort that took up a whole room back then) and then translated into instructions for a machine which told the weavers the correct positions for the wire threads. It was very difficult to undo a mistake so a great deal of care was taken to get things right the first time, especially as it could take up to two months to complete one block of memory. Some of the rope weavers were overseen by Margaret Hamilton, one of the women who developed the software used on board the spacecraft, and who went on to lead the Apollo software team.
The world’s first portable computer?
Several of these pre-programmed core rope memory units were combined and installed in the guidance computers of the Apollo mission spacecraft that had to fly astronauts safely to the Moon and back. NASA needed on-board guidance systems to control the spacecraft independently of Mission Control back on Earth. They needed something that didn’t take up too much room or weigh too much, that could survive the shaking and juddering of take-off and background radiation: core rope memory fitted the bill perfectly.
It packed a lot of information (well, not by modern standards! The guidance computer contained only around 70 kilobytes of memory) into a small space and was very robust as it could only break if a wire came loose or one of the ferrite eyelets was damaged (which didn’t happen). To make sure though, the guidance computer’s electronics were sealed from the atmosphere for extra protection. They survived and worked well, guiding the Landing Modules safely onto the Moon.
One small step for man perhaps, but the Moon landings were certainly a giant leap for computing.
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This article was funded by UKRI, through Professor Ursula Martin’s grant EP/K040251/2 and grant EP/W033615/1.