The Woman Who Made Microchips A Reality Passes Away At 86

A pioneering computer scientist, Lynn Conway, who was fired back in the 1960s by IBM for revealing that she was transgender, breathed her last on June 9 in Michigan. She passed away at the age of 86 and her husband, Charles Rogers, said that she died due to the complications of two heart attacks in a hospital. It was due to her work that microchips became a reality.

Conway was one of the few who received a formal apology from IBM for firing her, however, this apology came around 52 years after the incident. When she left IBM in 1968, she became one of the first Americans who underwent sex reassignment surgery. She kept the news hidden for around 31 years in ‘stealth’ mode due to the fear of career reprisals and concern for her physical safety. She was successful in rebuilding her career from scratch and secured a job at Xerox PARC laboratory. She made significant contributions while being there and came out of her closet publically again in 1999. Soon she became a prominent transgender activist.

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Lynn Conway’s Contributions

Conway’s groundbreaking work in her field earlier often went unrecognised, partly due to her concealed history at IBM and the typically underappreciated nature of designing computer components. Nonetheless, her innovations were instrumental in the development of personal computers, cellphones, and enhancements in national defence.

In 2009, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers honoured her with the Computer Pioneer Award for her “foundational contributions” to the advancement of supercomputers at IBM and her revolutionary approach to designing computer chips at Xerox PARC. This approach sparked a global transformation in the industry.

During the 1970s at Xerox, Conway, in collaboration with Carver Mead from the California Institute of Technology, developed the technique of very large-scale integrated design (VLSI). This method enabled the integration of millions of circuits onto a single microchip. Yes, she became the mother of microchips. Valeria Bertacco, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, said, “My field would not exist without Lynn Conway. Chips used to be designed by drawing them with paper and pencil like an architect’s blueprints in the predigital era. Conway’s work developed algorithms that enabled our field to use software to arrange millions, and later billions, of transistors on a chip.”

Lynn Conway’s Accolades

Her breakthrough in designing complex computer chips with Mead was written down in their 1979 textbook, “Introduction to VLSI Systems.” This book then became a standard handbook for computer science students and engineers. In 1983, she was recruited to lead a supercomputer program at the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. 

She later accepted roles as a professor and associate dean at the University of Michigan’s engineering school, retiring in 1988. Her achievements led to her election to the Electronic Design Hall of Fame and the National Academy of Engineering.

In the late 1990s, a researcher investigating IBM’s work from the 1960s uncovered Conway’s significant, yet largely unrecognized, contributions to computer design, hidden due to her concealed past identity.

While at IBM, Conway developed a method for programming computers to execute multiple operations simultaneously, significantly reducing processing time. This innovation, known as dynamic instruction scheduling, was integrated into numerous high-speed computers.

Lynn Conway’s Early Life

She was born on January 2, 1938, in Mount Vernon, New York, to Rufus and Christine Savage. Her mother taught in kindergarten and her father was a chemical engineer for Texaco. She did not have an easy childhood as her parents divorced when she, the elder of two children, was just seven.

She in her personal account of life wrote, “Although I was born and raised as a boy, all during my childhood years I felt like, and desperately wanted to be, a girl.”

Her exceptional talent in math and science became evident early on. At just 16, she constructed a reflecting telescope with a 6-inch lens. While studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 1950s, she began self-administering estrogen and dressing as a woman off campus. However, the stress of leading a double life took a toll, causing her grades to suffer, and ultimately led her to leave MIT. In 1961, she enrolled at Columbia University, where she earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering.

Conway was then offered a position at IBM’s research center in Yorktown Heights, New York, where she worked on the top-secret Project Y, aimed at developing the world’s fastest supercomputer. When the project moved to Menlo Park, California, she followed, arriving in what would soon become Silicon Valley, the global epicenter of technology.

During this time, she was married to a nurse and had two daughters. However, she described the marriage as an “illusion,” as she continued to struggle with the profound conviction that she was in the wrong body. The distress was so severe that she once considered ending her life, even putting a pistol to her head in a moment of despair.

When she got to learn about the pioneering hormonal and surgical procedures that a handful of doctors were performing, she talked to her spouse about the desire to transition. This broke them apart, she was barred from contact with her children for many years by their mother.

She wrote, “When IBM fired me, all my family, relatives, friends and many colleagues, too, simultaneously lost confidence in me. They became ashamed being seen with me, and very embarrassed about what I was doing. None of them would have anything to do with me after that.”

After going through the transition, looking for work was not easy either. She was rejected for jobs as soon as she disclosed her medical history. She wrote, “I had to start all over pretty much from scratch technically and prove myself all over again. The idea of being ‘outed’ and somehow declared to ‘be a man’ was an unthinkable thing to be avoided at all costs. So, for the following 30 years I almost never talked about my past to anyone other than close friends and a few lovers.”

She finally found work as a contract programmer and eventually reached Xerox’s new Palo Alto Research Center, a hub of brain power and innovation that famously gave birth to the personal computer, the point-and-click user interface and the Ethernet protocol.

She got married to Rogers back in 2002. Rogers was an engineer that she came across on a canoe outing in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Conway is survived by her daughters, whom Rogers said were largely estranged from her, and six grandchildren.

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