Lyon: J.-A. Henry, 1883. 16mo (119 x 143 mm). Title with the armorial device of the City of Lyon on verso + 20 pp. woven entirely in silver and black silk thread using the Jacquard loom process, each page each surrounded by a fine interlocking ornamental border. Contemporary French brown morocco janséniste (spine faded, extremities with some wear, most prominently at the top of the front joint), original ornamental woven silk doublures, the opposing leaves bearing the same motif but woven in reverse, original monochrome silk endleaves. Preserved in a brown cloth protective case. Very good. Item #4103
THE FIRST BOOK WOVEN ENTIRELY IN SILK BY THE PROGRAMMABLE JACQUARD LOOM METHOD, A MONUMENT IN COMPUTATION IN THE SERVICE OF THE BOOK ARTS.
The is a book of great rarity: only four or five copies have been located by us, including ours. Now virtually unknown, the silk-woven Lamartine preceeds by at least three years the celebrated “Livre de Prières tissé” (1886-87). There can be no doubt that this volume represents the very first book created by an automated programmable machine, with hundreds of thousands of programmed operations generated by highly complex algorithms through the use of punched cards.
Apart from its monumental scientific and technical significance, it can be stated without exaggeration that the present volume is a joy to behold. Every page simply gleams on account of the fine silver and black silk, here almost microscopically woven into typographic and artistic perfection: there are exactly 400 weft threads per 2.5 centimeters, for which the movement of the weaving machine was strictly limited to one tenth of a millimeter. It is in every way an extraordinary book.
At the time of its invention, in 1801, the Jacquard Loom was the most complex programmable machine in existence for which thousands of punched cards were employed as automated weaving instructions to a mechanized loom. The incredible potential of Jacquard’s punched card system, with its binary data and disarmingly modern “INPUT / OUTPUT” capabilities, was seized upon by English visionary Charles Babbage (1791-1871), who integrated the process into his theoretical “Analytical Engine.” James Essinger argues convincingly that the Jacquard Loom was pivotal in the in the development of computer science (see "Jacquard’s Web: How a Hand-loom led to the Birth of the Information Age," 2004). It is of the greatest significance that present creation precedes the celebrated “Livre de Prières tissé” (1886-87) by at least three years, and thus remains the very first example of a “computer generated” book. With uncanny prescience, the data input mechanisms and intricate algorithms that were responsible for creating the present volume prefigure modern computer automation and computer programming.
Until our rediscovery of it in 2011, the silk-woven Lamartine had disappeared from the world of science and bibliography for more than a century. The most "recent" description of the book had appeared in 1900, namely in Vicaire’s "Manuel de l’amateur" (vol. 4, cols. 979-980). Contemporary chroniclers to whom the book was known are few in number, yet they all agree upon three fundamental facts: that it was created before the "Livres de Prières tissé"; that it was extremely rare (even in the nineteenth-century); and that no copies of the book were ever offered for sale. It would appear that only four other examples of J.-A.Henry’s silk woven-Lamartine have been described hitherto, and one of these remains unverified. Ours may be the only copy remaining in private ownership.
Information about the creation of the present volume is scant, but a highly interesting account of it is given in the August 1889 issue of "Le Correspondant." While describing the "Livre de Prières tissé" as a marvel of technology and a model of bibliophilic refinement, the author freely acknowledges that “this is not the first time that the Lyon manufacturer [J.-A. Henry] had performed a similar feat: several years ago there appeared Lamartine’s poem 'Les Laboureurs' -- a complete curiosity; examples of it are rare and have never been offered for sale on the open market. One of them is in the Bibliothèque Mazarine [now Bibliothèque Nationale]; another copy, unique and even richer than the preceding, was ordered by the Comte de Paris on the condition that no other examples would be created; it now holds an honored place in the library of the Chateau d'Eu.” (see: “Une merveille artistique: un Livre de Prières tissé en soie,” vol. 156, pp. 602 et seq.). NB: The Chateau d'Eu copy has not be confirmed as of this writing.
Additional details about the book appeared in the 1889 periodical "Le Livre / Bibliographie moderne (Revue mensuelle)" in which is related an exchange between Émile Egger, author of "L’Histoire du Livre" (1880) and M. Heinrich, Dean of the Faculty of Arts in Lyon. Egger was informed that from his extensive study of bookmaking techniques, he had mistakenly omitted one very important book, namely: “a book that was not printed, but woven in silk by a disciple of Jacquard, namely J.-A. Henry, a Lyonnais manufacturer. The text of this book was Lamartine’s poem 'Les Laboureurs.' It was an experiment of weaving […] and is the true prototype of the Livre de Prières, the latter being the direct result of the Lamartine experiments." (See "Le Livre" vol. 10, 4e Livraison, 10 April 1889, p. 207).
1. The present copy;
2. Library of Congress (acquired 2011 through Jonathan Hill and Michael Laird, who purchased it at Robert & Braille, Hotel Drouot Paris, sale 1 March 2011, lot 147);
3. RIT Cary Graphic Arts Collection (acquired in 2017 through Jonathan Hill);
4. Musée des Tissus, Lyon (inv. no. 2015.0.14);
5. Chateau d'Eu (unverified).
NOT in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (but see below). No copy is listed in Rare Book Hub (but see below).
THE 1878 PROTOTYPE: An apparently unfinished prototype of the silk-woven Lamartine was exhibited as a "souvenir" for the 1878 Exposition Universelle. The prototype, which is otherwise undated, presented the text of the poem only, without any surrounding borders; its primitive-looking title-page gives information about the persons involved in the creation of it: "Mise en carte: MM. Prignol; Lisage: Lespinasse & Paquet; Tissage: Vallet." Of this prototype, apparently four copies were made according to the Koller sale catalogue in which the stained Copy no. 1 appeared (24 September 2019, lot 301); it realized the astonishing sum of EUR 82,470 (this copy was previously offered at Zisska and Kistner, 14 November 2007, lot 1316, est. EUR 22,000, unsold). The BnF owns two copies of the prototype (see the Catalogue général des livres imprimés, vol. 87, col. 122, no. 479), both apparently unnumbered. If a fourth copy exists (or has existed) it has not been traced.
We have wondered why a poem by Alphonse de Lamartine was chosen for this pioneering, almost heroic manufacturing effort. Although today the author is now almost completely ignored, he was extremely popular in France during the nineteenth century. Then we came to realize that Lamartine wrote romantic essays not only about Jacquard himself as the inventor of the programmable loom, but about Johannes Gutenberg as the inventor of printing. These essays appeared in the same book under the title "Jacquard. Gutenberg" (Paris: Michel Levy, 1864). Perhaps the creators of the our silk-woven gem sought to honor Lamartine accordingly.
Many institutions that own a copy of the "Livre de Prières tissé" are apparently unaware of the fact that it is not "the first book woven by a computer." For instance the Walters Art Gallery held an entire exhibition dedicated to the "Livre de Prières" ("Woven Words: Decoding the Silk Book," 2019) which received just acclaim, and yet the silk-woven Lamartine was never mentioned.
FURTHER REFERENCES: Matthew Westerby, "The Woven Prayer Book: Cocoon to Codex" (Les Enluminures, 2019), reproducing a photograph of Copy no. 2 in the above census from the Robert & Braille sale catalogue (apparently unaware that the book is now in LC). Westerby wrongly states that the 1883 book is a "reissue" of the 1878 protype (a bibliographic impossibility considering that a "reissue" concerns a setting or resetting of type), and on p. 18 he wrongly dates the book as "1886" instead of 1883.