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Lynn Conway has passed.

You have probably never heard of Lynn Conway. But she was important for a number of accomplishments, and her story is important to share.

3 min read
Photo by Bartosz Kwitkowski / Unsplash

Lynn Conway passed away on Sunday, June 9, at the age of 86. Who was Lynn Conway and why was her death significant?


In 1979, a book was published that would change the world of electronics manufacturing, and therefore, literally, the world. The title was Introduction to VLSI Systems. The authors were Carver Mead and Lynn Conway. Carver Mead was a famous and respected professor at CalTech. But no one could find any information about Lynn Conway.

Why was this book important? Prior to 1979, only very large corporations could afford the multi-million dollar manufacturing facilities needed to build advanced integrated circuits (the “very large-scale integration” referenced in the book title). IBM and Intel pretty much dominated the electronics world. If you didn’t work for one of those or a few other big companies, you had no way to manufacture an integrated circuit. The revolutionary approach that Mead and Conway took was to separate the design process from the manufacturing process. They created transistor “design rules” that could be used to create generic integrated circuit designs that could then be fabricated at any semiconductor foundry in the world that was compatible with those rules. It turned out to be a perfect marriage — smart people with ideas for electronic functions, including university students, could get their designs built at a large semiconductor foundry with excess capacity to sell. Universities could now train students with actual hardware realizations of their ideas. Companies like Apple Computer could focus on electronics applications without having to own their own manufacturing plants.

Lynn Conway had come up with the idea in the 1970s, when she was working as an electronics technician at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto, California. She took a leave of absence to teach an electronics design course at her alma mater MIT that would demonstrate the foundry concept using the semiconductor fabrication facilities at Xerox. Electronic circuit designs from students in Massachusetts were fabricated at a manufacturing facility in California. And they worked.

But who was Lynn Conway, and why was she working in stealth mode at a lab in California?

She actually was a highly trained engineer with a history of accomplishments in computer science at her former employer IBM. But when she had worked at IBM, she was a man. Married with 2 daughters, she had always known her sex and gender didn’t match. In 1968, to save her sanity, she announced to her boss that she would be traveling to Europe to transition to female. Initially supportive, IBM quickly fired her, unwilling to accept the attention that would inevitably arise. In 1968, that was just not a thing.

After her transition, she took a new name and identity, moved to California, and worked at odd jobs in the burgeoning electronics industry in Silicon Valley, all the while hiding her past. She had to create a resume from scratch. She wouldn’t see her kids again for 14 years.

After the success of her book, she left Xerox to head the supercomputer project at DARPA. In 1985, she joined the faculty at the University of Michigan as Professor and Associate Dean of Engineering. She was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1989. She has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates from countless American universities.

In 1999, she learned that her background was being investigated for a revealing book, so thirty years after her transition, she began to publicly tell her story. She spent the last years of her life actively advocating for transgender rights. In 2004, she appeared as a cast member in an all-transgender performance of The Vagina Monologues in Los Angeles.

Then, this happened.

In 2020, she received an unexpected gift: A formal apology from IBM for firing her 52 years earlier. At an emotional ceremony witnessed by 1,200 IBM employees signed on to a company website, Diane Gherson, an IBM senior vice president, told her, “Thanks to your courage, your example, and all the people who followed in your footsteps, as a society we are now in a better place.... But that doesn’t help you, Lynn, probably our very first employee to come out. And for that, we deeply regret what you went through — and know I speak for all of us.”

The world truly is a better place. RIP, Lynn Conway.


Written by liberaldad2. Cross-posted from Daily Kos.

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