How artist Janice Lourie, 90, became a trailblazing computer scientist at IBM

Home / How artist Janice Lourie, 90, became a trailblazing computer scientist at IBM

Janice Lourie and patent attorney Charles Boberg at IBM in 1970. Below them is a monitor displaying a pattern she created with her software.
Janice Lourie and patent attorney Charles Boberg at IBM in 1970. Below them is a monitor displaying a pattern she created with her software.Courtesy of IBM

Back in 1954, Lourie was a technical editor, playing clarinet in a Boston-area ensemble, when the pianist, an MIT chemist, hired her to process data on punch paper tape.

“It was a pretty rote job,” said Lourie, now 90, over Zoom from her home in Arlington, Vt. The chemist published a paper on the project, and in a footnote mentioned Lourie as a contributor.

“It felt wonderful,” she said. She was off and running.

She speaks humbly about her work in computers, as if her path unfolded purely by luck and circumstance. In 1957, IBM hired her, and she moved to New York, where she devised a program implementing a new computer language, LISP, developed by John McCarthy at MIT. The research helped lay the groundwork for GPS and artificial intelligence.

“It’s a way to start at the top and finger your way through and encompass every point in the tree,” she said. “I fell in love with the ability to trace trees.”

Lourie published her own paper on the project. That’s when IBM gave her carte blanche. There weren’t many women in computer science, and the field was burgeoning.

“I was allowed to name my own project,” she said, and points to computer pioneer Grace Hopper as “leading the way.”

“There was no resistance to women’s employment or advancement in those days,” Lourie said.

It was 1964. Lourie had been a weaver since she was 7, growing up in Chelsea, making rugs for her dollhouse on a loom her father built. Now, weaving gave her an idea.

The Jacquard loom, invented in 1804, runs on punch cards. It inspired 19th-century computational coding, which led to the invention of computers. Since textiles laid the groundwork for computing, Lourie wondered how computing could support textiles.

Janice Lourie's "Copter Tail" (top) and "Out My Window," created in 1988-89.
Janice Lourie’s “Copter Tail” (top) and “Out My Window,” created in 1988-89.Peter Harris

IBM encouraged her research, but initially nixed Lourie’s proposal of a patent. At the time, patents were given to hardware, not software. But her design system generated buzz, and the company decided to make Graphical Design of Textiles a test case.

“Things have a way of going through a tiny slit to opening up,” said Lourie. “The whole software picture changed.”

Lourie’s software changed the game in textiles. Her patent changed the game in computers, as focus shifted from internal systems to user interface.

“I finished a good job and I really understood part of it,” she said. “There were parts I did not understand. I’ve been given tremendous credit for it.”

“Most artists I work with approach software as a tool,” said Dina Deitsch, director and chief curator of the Tufts University Art Galleries, who co-organized the exhibition. “Jan built the tool.”

Graphical Design of Textiles is one creation among a lifetime of them.

“At one of the first lectures I went to in music history, I heard that rests are as important as notes,” said Lourie, who also attended Longy School of Music. “It became my mission to find the meaning of that in every medium. … The separations between entities, the boundaries. How two colors touch each other, a shape, a change between moods.”

She left IBM in the early 1980s; by then, she had acquired an early digital camera and was starting to take pictures. She filters her photographs one through another. Some artworks in “The Woven Image” layer scenes from outside the window of her New York apartment.

Janice Lourie's "Metalworks," from 2009.
Janice Lourie’s “Metalworks,” from 2009.Peter Harris

The images hold the tension between boundaries and fusion. Such a tension is itself an edge — the kind of edge we build things on, whether it’s an artwork, a sonata, or a software program.

“You have to put yourself in a practice where you can follow your ideas,” Lourie said.

And that, she might say — luck and circumstance aside — is how she excelled in computer science.

“I went to a lot of meetings to speak, and people said, ‘I had this idea so many years ago,’” she said. “Well, the whole thing is, did you execute it?”

Janice Lourie did.

JANICE LOURIE: THE WOVEN IMAGE

Open to the Tufts University community at Tufts University Art Galleries, 40 Talbots Ave., Medford, and in a virtual exhibition online. Through Dec. 18. https://artgalleries.tufts.edu/blog/news/2020/03/18/jan-lourie/


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.

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