Up until 1804, a skilled silk weaver could only produce an inch of material per day. That year, Frenchman Joseph-Marie Jacquard devised a loom that could ''read'' a stack of perforated cards and generate patterns of amazing complexity 24 times faster than conventional looms. A grateful Napoleon Bonaparte awarded Jacquard a handsome pension. The loom caught the interest of Brit polymath Charles Babbage, who, some 30 years later, used punch cards for his never completed Analytical Engine, widely considered the precursor to modern computers. With wit and imagination, James Essinger has woven in Jacquard's Web a marvelous tapestry celebrating this rugs-to-riches story and the unlikely birth of the information age.