Photo by Gene Wolf
A Jacquard power loom. The wooden punch cards controlling the weave are on the right hand side of the loom.

Digital Innovation Began A Very Long Time Ago

May 19, 2017
It’s only disruptive if you’re not ready.

If you have ever heard me speak or read any of my columns or articles, you probably know I get wrapped up in new technology. It fascinates me and I have been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to get my hands on some first-of-a-kind apparatuses making their way to the grid. I have been able to do hands-on work on some amazing HVDC (high voltage direct current) schemes and FACTS (flexible AC transmission systems) projects over the years. I have also written a series of articles on HVDC, FACTS, and Volt-Var technologies spanning several years. I have found the best way to understand today’s state-of-the-art technology is to start at the most basic level, which usually gets me probing its history.

A long history

Over my years of working with technologies such as HVDC, FACTS, and other energy-related technologies, I have found that in most cases the technology started a long time ago. Surprisingly, a great deal of our modern technologies had their origins back in the early days of our industry. Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, Siemens, etc. had the original ideas, but the materials of that day couldn’t support moving from concept to hardware. However, science and manufacturing breakthroughs have changed all of that. Simple HVDC transmission schemes have become multiple terminals and the DC power circuit breaker is poised to make HVDC networks possible. FACTS controllers are being combined to produce systems of controllers to provide voltage support across wide networks rather than just one stand-alone substation. Now we have started introducing big data technolgy to the grid to increase power flow across the gird with these devices and others.

It never crossed my mind that big data would have its roots way back in history, but it did, which I discovered that totally by accident on the Science channel. They had a story about big data that caught my attention. In the course of describing the concept of big data, the host went back into history and explained it had started in 1801. I hit the replay button to make sure I heard that correctly. It seems fabric with intricate designs and complex patterns was very popular in the 18th century, but manufacturing was very time consuming and extremely expensive. A Frenchman named Joseph Marie Jacquard came up with an idea to automate the process. He saw the patterns on the fabric were intricate, but repetitive. Jacquard developed a power loom that controlled the weave by a series of punched wooden cards laced together in a long row.

The Jacquard loom could be thought of as an early computer and the cards were the read-only information storage for the binary input to the computer.  The holes and non-holes represented the 1s and 0s of the binary code. The cards corresponded to one row of the design on the fabric and the chain of cards produced unlimited varieties of textiles. This sounded a lot like the key-punch cards I used to write computer programs in my undergraduate days in engineering school. Funny thing, I saw one of these looms in the Scottish Museum in Edinburgh a few years ago, but had no idea that I was looking at one of the early disruptive technologies of the industrial revolution.

It’s only disruptive if you’re not ready

This early digital innovation revolutionized the weaving world of the 19th century. It was a huge benefit to the mill owners; unfortunately, many loom operators lost their jobs. However, the technology made these fabrics cheaper and increased more demand for the product. That had the overall impact of providing many more jobs than were lost to the deployment of the new loom technology. The Jacquard loom technology changed the textile industry, but we have to keep in mind that technology is only disruptive when you are not prepared for it. So, let’s be prepared for all the changes being introduced with smart grid technologies by digging into them, investigating how they work, and examining how to use them. Digital innovation is all around us, let’s keep our minds open and see where it leads us!

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