Celebrating a Software Pioneer

Fifty years ago, Janice Lourie started a revolution in textile manufacturing with IBM’s first software patent, and now as an artist continues to transcend boundaries
Janice Lourie with Charles Boberg behind a computer monitor. Fifty years ago, Janice Lourie started a revolution in textile manufacturing with IBM’s first software patent, and now as an artist continues to transcend boundaries
Janice Lourie and patent attorney Charles Boberg. “She not only helped change technology, but the way we design graphics,” says Patrice George of the Fashion Institute of Technology. Photo: © International Business Machines Corporation
September 21, 2020

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Janice Richmond Lourie, J57, was only 7 when she and her mother happened upon a demonstration by traditional weavers from Berea, Kentucky. “I went berserk,” she said. “The idea that you could have an idea and make that idea happen. To me, that was magic. I told my father he had to make a loom for me—and he did.”

Decades later, Lourie’s childhood fascination would lead her to develop innovative computer software that bridged the technical and artistic worlds and made possible the automated computer-driven loom, transforming textile manufacturing.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the patent awarded to Lourie’s breakthrough applicationknown as the Textile Graphics System—historically significant as the first patent awarded to IBM for software.

As a pioneering computer scientist at IBM in the 1960s, Lourie developed a novel software system that put a light pen in the hands of designers. This allowed them to produce a weave or pattern in minutes that would take days or weeks to reproduce by hand on graph paper. For the first time, textile designers had the freedom to design and experiment, which had long been the domain of handweavers.

Lourie’s innovation marked a milestone for computer-aided design, or CAD. For developing several computer methods that took “the drudgery out of fabric design,” as a 1970 IBM magazine article described it, she was the first IBM programmer to achieve a “first plateau” IBM Invention Achievement Award.

Now 90, Lourie continues to fuse computer science and creative vision as a productive multimedia artist, specializing in digitally produced composites. Her work is being featured this fall in Janice Lourie: The Woven Image, in the Koppelman Gallery at Tufts.

“As a human race, we’ve made tremendous progress; we have a tremendous gift given to us by technology,” said Janice Lourie, here with some of her art. Photo: Isabel Fernández Laignel, A21The exhibition, running through December 18, celebrates Lourie’s recent art as well as her lifetime of achievements. Online visitors can a “360 tour” of the exhibit, and learn more about the artist-scientist and her creative process in two video interviews. (In-person visits to the gallery are limited to the Tufts campus community—students, faculty, and staff; reservations are required for group visits.) Lourie is also one of the artists featured in the exhibition The Computer Pays Its Debt: Women, Textiles, and Technology, 1965-1985 at the Center for Craft in Asheville, North Carolina.

Lourie’s work at IBM revolutionized textile manufacturing and design and demonstrated the enormous potential of computer-aided design, said Fang (Florence) Lu, an IBM senior solution architect, IBM master inventor, and co-chair of IBM’s worldwide Women Inventors Community.

It also reflected how Lourie flourished in the experimental climate of the 1960s. “Even after the patent was awarded, she . . . kept exploring how artists and the computer could come together,” Lu said. “It seems to have been the perfect time and place for her radical invention. She’s an inspiring role model for inventors worldwide.”

Lourie’s biggest impact was in expanding graphic design possibilities, said Patrice George, an associate professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “She had an intuitive, visual approach to the problem,” George said. “She not only helped change technology, but the way we design graphics; she unlocked creativity in a way that had never been done before.”

Music and Math

Lourie was born in Chelsea, Mass., in 1930, the only child of two progressive lawyers who encouraged her aptitude for free-range thinking. Her inventions—which her father built for her—included a scooter modified with runners so it could glide over snow. Her mother also supported her enterprising daughter, once driving her to Pennsylvania to meet with Conn, a musical instrument manufacturer (now Conn-Selmer). Lourie, well-practiced on the clarinet, pitched design improvements that would synchronize fingering “with how the brain works.” She was 12.

At the 1968 World’s Fair in San Antonio, the main attraction in the IBM Durango Pavilion was the computer-controlled loom. Photo: UTSA Special CollectionsLourie credits her parents for giving her lifelong confidence to think big and venture bold ideas. As a woman rising to success in what continues to be a male-dominated profession, she said by phone from her home in Vermont, “I never felt prejudice, because my parents were very positive about steering me into doing things.”

Tufts was Lourie’s natural choice for college, since her mother was class of 1922, but she first continued her studies on the clarinet at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge. “I loved my two years at Longy,” she said.

Once at the university, she finished her work for a philosophy degree in half the usual time, but didn’t officially graduate in 1950 because of a missed swim test. Addressing the oversight years later, she joined the Class of 1957.  

The early 1950s found Lourie performing with amateur musical groups in and around Harvard Square and deepening her love for early woodwinds. In 1954, she became a founding member of the Camerata of the Museum of Fine Arts. She also worked as a technical editor at Parke Mathematical Laboratories, then landed a job at MIT that involved Whirlwind II.

At MIT, she also explored a growing fascination for mathematical logic, taking as many mathematics courses as she could. She received a master’s degree in mathematics from Boston University in 1957 and joined IBM’s Cambridge office that fall.

Two Paths Converge

When Lourie started her work on textile design, she was thinking about analogies between the manufacturing of fabric and computer programming. “I knew in my gut that there was a relationship,” she said. “There was a natural parallel.”

Indeed, it was textile manufacturing that inspired modern computer technology, thanks to the invention of the Jacquard loom. Charles Babbage’s Analytic Engine, developed between 1833 and 1840 and considered the precursor to the modern computer, could perform mathematical operations following instructions coded on punched cards. His ideas came from the Jacquard loom.

IBM celebrated Janice Lourie and her invention in an advertising campaign. First developed in 1780, that loom automated textile manufacturing through the use of hand-made punched cards. The holes “programmed” the raising and lowering of the warp threads, allowing for elaborate weaves and patterns drawn by hand on graph paper.  

In 1964, Lourie saw a Jacquard loom up close at a local mill. A research scientist at IBM’s New York Scientific Center then, she was in awe as she watched how “thousands of cards . . . hanging above the loom were weaving a complex design.” The “powerful analogy” connecting the loom to computers compelled her to explore how computer technology could serve the industry, Lourie said in her 1973 book Textile Graphics / Computer-Aided.

“It seemed obvious,” she wrote, “that the large Jacquard cards could be modified or replaced for the textile industry; an electronically vs. mechanically controlled patterning mechanism could be built.” 

Lourie, then 33, brought her idea back to IBM, where she was working in the mathematics and applications department. But the company did not put the patent wheels in motion. Up to that point, patents had been awarded only to advances in hardware—not processes. Whatever was “programmable” on a general-purpose computer didn’t qualify.

IBM nonetheless gave her free rein to explore tech transfer possibilities. She devoted the next two years to assiduous research, apprenticing with textile manufacturers, including Burlington House, necktie manufacturer Raxon, and Liberty Lace, studying every step of carrying a design concept into woven fabric.   

In particular Lourie was interested in the crucial first step of patterning on point paper, or graph paper, that dictated where the holes were punched into the cards, which, in turn, were translated into the actual textile weave. The control of patterns began with sheets of graph paper on which interpreters filled in squares with exacting detail, and Lourie burrowed into that process. She remembers sitting for eight hours at a time, “just painting those tiny rectangles.”

That intensive work confirmed that the “real problem” IBM programmers had to solve was artistic. The computer itself had no decision-making capability, after all, and if it were to evolve into a sophisticated design tool, it would have to preserve the designer’s aesthetic—and nuanced—judgement.

Lourie’s preliminary solution began with the cathode-ray tube known as the IBM 2250. It proved an effective focal point of the designer’s interaction with the computer, because it so easily responded to a light pen. For more detailed graphic ideas, she chose a wire mesh tablet, the Rand Tablet, on which a designer could trace a design or draw freehand with a stylus that had the sensitivity of a ballpoint pen.

The system, and Lourie’s industrious research that led to it, came together in a pivotal 1966 paper. An IBM press release heralded the innovation: “The textile designer of the future may be able to discard his traditional paint brush and graph paper in favor of a pen that ‘writes’ with light on an ‘electronic drawing board’ linked to a computer.” 

The tech and manufacturing worlds, and mainstream media, also took notice of the system that IBM foresaw could “save hundreds of hours” of work, according to the press release. The New York Times ran an article about Lourie with the eye-catching headline, “Quick, Compute Me a Nice Tapestry.”

Looming Change

The paper also rekindled the quest for a patent. In August 1967, Charles Boberg, an IBM patent attorney, filed a request with the U.S. Patent Office, which followed convention with a “no.”

Still, IBM pursued a larger vision for the software program, one that would vividly prove its merit as a worldwide gamechanger. The world’s first computer-controlled loom debuted at HemisFair ’68, the 1968 World’s Fair, in San Antonio, Texas. The main attraction in the IBM Durango Pavilion, the computer-controlled loom showed the general public how easy it was to draw designs on a screen with the light pen and see them rapidly reproduced in a swatch of fabric. 

An IBM press release heralded the innovation: “The textile designer of the future may be able to discard his traditional paint brush and graph paper in favor of a pen that ‘writes’ with light on an ‘electronic drawing board’ linked to a computer.” Photo: Courtesy of International Business Machines Corporation, © International Business Machines Corporation“Essentially it was the public’s first encounter with what we call an ‘app’ today,’” said Lourie. “It was an idea whose time had come. They would sit down at the computer, pick up a light pen, draw on the screen, choose colors for the design, and then watch the loom weave the fabric. It never failed to excite.”

Patent laws began to respond as well. In January 1970, the Patent Office reversed its position on the patent application and that fall, the patent was granted. Lourie is quick to credit Boberg as an ally in translating her idea for patent consideration.

“When he didn’t understand exactly what I was saying, I showed him things. I drew him diagrams,” she said. “He had a mind that was ready to receive information to the point where he understood it.”

The admiration was mutual. Boberg recalled in IBM Magazine how that first patent “got me into an entirely new field, programming, and I learned more from this case than I have from any other case during my 30 years of patent experience.”

Demonstrations of the HemisFair system at IBM’s Fishkill, New York, facility brought the innovation to the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), where the first course in textile graphics was taught in September 1968. FIT acquired the Hemisfair Loom in 1973. Originally designed to simplify Jacquard weaving, the system software by then had also been adapted to weft knitting and textile printing.   

The Textile Graphics system had obvious advantages for manufacturers; it compressed the time between design and completed representation of a pattern from several days to a few hours. But Lourie also saw it as a springboard for computer-aided graphics. She invited experimental artists to come to IBM and explore the creative potential of the system.

“Although the Textile Graphics system was conceived and built for textile designers, we discovered, as a cybernetic serendipity, that it is a viable medium for artists,” she wrote in Textile Design.

Patrice George said that legacy cannot be overstated.  At FIT today, textile students study both traditional manual design skills and specialized textile design and production programs from developers including Adobe, Nedgraphics, and Pointcarre.

FIT textile students “prove the ongoing value of CAD as envisioned by Janice,” she said. “They learn to create simulated designs that can be prototyped on computer-interfaced textile equipment in college labs or mills around the world. We now take these tools for granted, but we should regard the anniversary of the textile systems patent as a celebration. It’s because of Janice’s hard work and vision that we have these remarkable opportunities in digital textile design.”

The Artist Matters

Lourie, who retired from IBM in the mid-1980s, continues to push the boundaries of digital artwork in a studio outfitted with multiple computers.  

“I put together things that obviously don’t belong,” she said. “My mind is going about the world around me, looking for different things to be fused. You could say everything I’ve done is connected by the idea of fusion.”

Her curiosity remains relentless. To be 90, she said, is to be productive, and she’s happy to be able to have a show at her alma mater.

She hopes both her approach to art and this historic anniversary inspire artists and scientists today to transcend boundaries, to look for synthesis, and to always respect the individual human impulse to create.

“As a human race, we’ve made tremendous progress; we have a tremendous gift given to us by technology,” she said. “Maybe now is the time to go to a genuine four-day work week so that human beings have more time for thinking and imagination—and hopefully good imagination. That’s what makes the world go.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.