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At Walters Art Museum, a 19th-century prayer book connected to computer pioneers

The Silk Book — the only successful example of an entirely woven book — was created on a jacquard loom that included punch cards, the precursor for early computer technology.

It’s exquisite, this little 19th-century Christian prayer book — not the least because its pious and conventional appearance disguises a breathtakingly innovative idea.

The petite volume is bound in navy blue goatskin that’s roughly as long as the average woman’s hand and not quite twice as wide. The pages are made from a dove-gray silk that practically shimmers in even the low light of the Walters Art Museum’s library. Every visual element on the pages — the figures of saints, margin details and minuscule letters — was woven on a jacquard loom in silk threads so fine that individual strands can barely be seen without magnification.

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But when Parisians first examined this missal when it went on view at the 1889 Exposition Universelle (better known as the world’s fair), they might not have realized how transformative it was.

A one-room exhibit running through April 28 called “Woven Words: Decoding the Silk Book,” explores how the construction of this collection of devotions laid the groundwork for the development of the computers that 130 years later have become indispensable to our lives.

“It’s mind-blowing,” marveled Lynley Herbert, the Walters’ associate curator of rare books and manuscripts.

“This book is so beautiful and so austere. It was this hoity-toity object that took six years to make. But it has so many connections to us now. This is the first book that ever was made on a computer. That’s really amazing.”

The Silk Book rests in a transparent display case in a fourth-floor gallery and is open to one page with especially lavish illustrations. The exhibit also includes handwritten books containing the trade secrets of weaving on a Jacquard loom and a video made by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum showing how the loom works. Visitors can pick up a sample of Jacquard silk, touch punch cards once used on a Jacquard loom and linger over tablets in the gallery that display a fully digitalized version of the Silk Book.

As Walters director Julia Marciari-Alexander put it: “We hope this exhibit will inspire our visitors to think about other ways in which art and science converge in their lives.”

In 1801, the exhibit explains, the French inventor Joseph Marie Jacquard figured out how to automate the expensive and labor-intensive method of weaving complicated patterns onto cloth. Before the 19th century, two workers were required to weave a pattern, Herbert said. The first man operated the large and heavy loom. The second man created the pattern by deciding when to pull up the vertical threads, which allowed the contrasting horizontal threads to show through.

Jacquard’s ingenious system involved a design painted onto gridded paper that was then “translated” onto punch cards which operated a series of hooks. The pattern of holes on the cards determined which threads got pulled up by the hooks at what times, producing the desired motif.

“It was really revolutionary,” Herbert said. “It allowed weavers to mass-produce more complex textiles for less money so more people could own them.”

More than 80 years later, three Frenchmen known today only as R.P.J. Hervier, J.A. Henry and A. Roux set out to push the limits of the new technology by using the loom to create an almost unimaginably complex object: a woven manuscript modeled on a medieval book of prayers. It took six years and 50 false starts, Herbert said, and required up to 500,000 punch cards — one for each of the near-invisible silk threads.

The result was a sensation in a world’s fair already chock-full of treasures. The Silk Book won its creators a grand prize, elevating them to the status of such fellow top award winners as decorative arts designer Louis Comfort Tiffany and artist John Singer Sargent.

Fifty copies of the book were reproduced, and the Baltimore art collector Henry Walters bought two, one for himself and one for his sister, Jennie Walters Delano. It’s Delano’s original copy that’s now on view.

“These books were so fragile,” Herbert said. “Only a handful have survived.”

It’s one thing to devise a system of punch cards to manufacture woven cloth. It’s quite another to envision other ways in which those punch cards might be used. The visionary imaginative leap that eventually resulted in the machine on which these words are being typed was the result of what computer experts describe as a great — and unlikely — scientific collaboration.

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In 1833, a middle-aged inventor and banker’s son named Charles Babbage met Lord Byron’s teenage daughter at a party. Babbage showed the then-17-year-old Ada Lovelace a small prototype of a computing machine he was working on that was inspired in part by the Jacquard loom.

“Babbage had a meticulous mind, and he brought a kind of 18th-century mentality to performing calculations,” said James Essinger, a British author who has written three books on Babbage, Lovelace and the Jacquard loom and is working on a fourth. “In 1821, he had a epiphany and realized that mathematical and scientific tables could be created by a machine.”

Lovelace was entranced — and that was the beginning of a partnership that Essinger likened to the world-changing collaboration nearly a century and a half later between Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

“Babbage was a brilliant inventor, but he never grasped the Jacquard loom as dynamically as Ada did,” Essinger said. “He was not the visionary that she was.”

If Babbage underestimated Lovelace, he wasn’t alone. In 19th-century Great Britain, women were primarily relegated to the roles of wives and mothers.

The Walters exhibit includes a reproduction of a portrait of Ada as a demure young girl that’s all soft cheeks and curls, a strand of pearls looped around her delicate throat. The painting contains no hint of the brilliant analytical mind that the girl inherited from her mathematician mother, Anne Milbanke. Byron abandoned his daughter and her mother, whom he dubbed “the princess of parallelograms,” shortly after Ada’s birth.

Lovelace’s contributions to the computer were downplayed for more than a century. Essinger said that until the 1970s, she was dismissed by computer scientists as a second-rate thinker “who stood on the shoulders of a giant.”

Indeed, Babbage’s design was so brilliant that he almost succeeded in getting one of his Analytical Engines built despite the obstacles he kept strewing in his own path. An Italian engineer awakened interest in Babbage’s machine after he wrote an article about the device for a Swiss journal. Lovelace translated that article, which was written in French (the scientific language of the era) into English — but added 20,000 words of notes outlining her own insights.

“She knew that as a woman, she couldn’t get away with writing an article containing her own ideas because no one would take her seriously,” Herbert said. “The way she got around it was by publishing her notes to the article about Babbage’s work. Her notes made the article about three times longer.”

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It was Lovelace who foresaw the Analytical Engine’s potential for uses other than mathematics — for instance, for composing music. Lovelace wrote that it “might act upon other things besides number... the Engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”

In effect, she’s the one who first realized that the computer wasn’t merely a machine for solving math problems, but is instead a system of rules that can be applied to a vast panorama of intellectual pursuits.

“I don’t use my computer to perform mathematical calculations,” Essinger said, “and neither do most people. They use it as a word processor or to do research or to play games. Ada was the one who first realized that the Analytical Engine was a general-purpose machine. That was an incredible insight for 1843.”

The pair were on the verge of creating the world's first working computer. Essinger said that if Babbage had obtained funding for his Analytical Engine, he could have built it and gotten it running, even with the tools available in the 19th century. But, hampered by his utter lack of social skills, Babbage kept alienating potential benefactors.

“He was hopeless about dealing with the influential people who could have helped him get his machine built,” Essinger said.

Worse, Babbage seriously devalued Lovelace, whom he trivialized as his “interpretess.” In 1843, she wrote a long letter urging Babbage to allow her to handle negotiations with backers. He brushed her offer aside.

“Imagine how different the world would be today if he had said yes instead of no,” said Essinger, who is working on a novel, “The Ada Lovelace Project,” based on that premise. “Babbage was his own worst enemy.”

Lovelace died from cancer in 1852 at age 36. Babbage died in 1871 at age 79. The Analytical Engine was not built during their lifetimes.

Lovelace began to emerge from Babbage’s shadow around 1977, when CII Honeywell Bull christened its new computer programming language “Ada” in her honor.

“She’s now widely acknowledged as a computer pioneer,” Essinger said. “It’s an amazing story.”

Herbert, the Walters’ associate curator, hopes that Lovelace’s example might inspire other mathematically inclined youngsters to visit the museum.

“When I put together this exhibit,” Herbert said, “one of the things I wanted to do was to make the link between textiles and computers and women in STEM. The fact that we can connect so many different ideas and interests that are relevant to our lives today is really wonderful for a one-room show.”

If you go

“Woven Words: Decoding the Silk Book” runs at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. through April 28. Free. Go to thewalters.org or call 410-547-9000.

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