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,