We’re brimming with pride for Lynn Conway
Pride has educated many people and brought us closer together, unfortunately it hasn’t always been this way. To mark Pride month we wanted to celebrate one of IT’s greatest minds, here’s the Lynn Conway story.
Lynn was born in the US on January 2nd, 1938. Her CV (were she ever to need one) is stacked high with pioneering achievements, though she is best known for inventing 'generalised dynamic instruction handling', a key advance in the design and production of microchips that is used by most modern computer processors to improve performance.
She is also widely known for the Mead-Conway VLSI chip design revolution in large (very large, about as big as you can get TBH) scale integrated VLSI microchip design. This revolution spread rapidly through the research institutions and computer industries of the 80’s, nurturing and delivering the electronic design automation industry, which went on to create the modern infrastructure for chip design and production, creating many of the devices we take for granted today as part of our everyday lives.
Here’s a shortlist of Lynn’s technical achievements-
Memorex during 1969–1972 as a digital system designer and computer architect.
Xerox PARC in 1973, where she led the LSI Systems group. Whilst here she founded the "multiproject wafers" (MPW). This new technology made it possible to pack multiple circuit designs from various sources into one single chip. Her new invention increased production and decreased costs.
Collaborating with Ivan Sutherland and Carver Mead, she co-authored the "Introduction to VLSI Systems", this groundbreaking work that would become a standard textbook for microchip design, being used in over 120 universities by 1983.
In 1978, she served as visiting associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. The course validated the new design methods and textbook, also establishing the syllabus and instructor's guidebook used in later courses worldwide.
1981- Metal Oxide Semiconductor Implementation Service (MOSIS) system. Conway's technical contributions with the invention of dimensionless, scalable design rules, a process that greatly simplified chip design and design tools required to produce the chips themselves and invention of a new form of internet-based infrastructure for rapid prototyping and short-run fabrication of large numbers of chip designs.
In the early 1980s, Conway left Xerox to join DARPA, where she was a key architect of the Defense Department's Strategic Computing Initiative, a research program studying high-performance computing, autonomous systems technology, and intelligent weapons technology.
1983 - Two years into its success, Mead and Conway received Electronics Magazine's annual award of achievement.The impact of the Mead–Conway work is described in numerous historical computing papers, articles, interviews and publications.
Conway joined the University of Michigan in 1985 as professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and associate dean of engineering. There she worked on "visual communications and control probing for basic system and user-interface concepts as applicable to a hybrid of internet/broadband-cable communications".
She retired from active teaching and research in 1998, as professor emerita at Michigan.
In the autumn of 2012, the IEEE published a special issue of the IEEE Journal of Solid-State Circuits devoted to Lynn Conway's career, including a career memoir by Lynn herself with peer commentaries from Chuck House, former Director of Engineering at HP, Carlo Séquin, Professor of EECS at U.C. Berkeley and Ken Shepard from Columbia University.
Lynn Conway grew up in New York, she was a shy child who suffered anxiety and depression due to gender dysphoria. Her childhood years were not easy. At school she was a good student, academically doing well in maths and science, entering MIT in 1955. But she wasn’t comfortable in her birth body. In 1957-8 she left MIT in despair after an attempted gender transition.
While struggling with life as a man, Conway tried to conform to society’s expectations, getting married to a woman and having two children. (Unbelievably, the law of the time denied Lynn access to her children after transitioning.)
Throughout this period Lynn remained ‘trapped’ in the wrong body, seeking medical help and professionals who could help her transition. Lynn’s close family and work colleagues were supportive of her gender decision. Her IBM managers even arranged a leave of absence and a return under a new identity. Unfortunately the CEO of IBM at the time, Thomas J Watson Jr, wasn’t as open minded and he fired Lynn in 1968 fearing scandal. (We should point out that IBM did issue an official apology to Lynn in 2020.)
Back to square 1
Lynn lost her prestigious job, and the loss of income negatively impacted her impending divorce. Not only was she denied visitation rights, but California’s Social Services also threatened her with a restraining order if she ever tried to see her own children.
The saddest part of losing her job came from her family and colleagues, the people who had once supported her quickly lost confidence in her. Leaving Lynn to travel overseas for her gender reassignment surgery alone, returning home to an uncertain future.
The comeback queen
Lynn embraced her new identity as a woman and humbly started her career journey again. She had lost everything professionally. It was as if she had never worked at IBM. Her professional reputation was destroyed, as were the records of her contributions to the projects she had worked on at IBM.
After working as an electronics technician for several years, Lynn resumed her education at Columbia University's School of Engineering and Applied Science, earning B.S. and M.S.E.E. degrees in 1962 and 1963.
Lynn finally felt free as a woman, and she showed the world that when you stay true to yourself, you become unstoppable. She was still a brilliant engineer and it took no time at all for the tech world to realise this – see the accolades above – simply stunning.
Academically and professionally Lynn Conway has achieved fantastic things, but personally she was tortured, unable to connect with her body. After learning about the pioneering research of Harry Benjamin in treating transsexual women, she approached him for help. Dr Benjamin agreed to provide counselling and prescribe hormones for Lynn. Under his care, she began her medical gender transition. She met her husband Charlie in 1987 and they have been together ever since.
In 1999, the same year Lynn retired from being a professor, computer historians began investigating her early research projects at IBM. Lynn knew that it was only a matter of time before she would be “outed.”
With her husband’s support, she proactively set up a website that detailed her transgender journey and the real reasons she left IBM. Within the site Lynn explained many things, but most important to her was a need to “illuminate and normalise the issues of gender identity and the processes of gender transition.”
In 2020, 52 years after IBM fired her, the company invited Lynn to a global virtual event, where they apologised. At this same event, IBM awarded her their Lifetime Achievement Award, a rare honour given to very few people in recognition of those who have changed the world through their technological inventions.
Also in 2020, NAE President, John L. Anderson commented that, “Lynn Conway is not only a revolutionary pioneer in the design of VLSI systems. But just as important, Lynn has been very brave in telling her own story, and her perseverance has been a reminder to society that it should not be blind to the innovations of women, people of color or others who don’t fit long outdated – but unfortunately, persistent – perceptions of what an engineer looks like.”
Today Lynn continues to change the world for the better as a transgender activist, fighting for equal opportunities and employment protection for transgender people.
Sharing this story with Pride
We simply couldn't think of a finer person to talk about as part of our Pride celebrations. Lynn Conway's vision and drive are quite simply awe inspiring.