Born in 1938, in Mount Vernon, New York, Lynn Conway developed an early interest in science and technology as a child – partly born from a love of BBC radio broadcasts. She began a career in engineering and then digital computing, which was undergoing a revolution in the early 1960s.
During this period, computers began to be much more popular in the workplace. With the development of programming languages COBOL and ALGOL, the invention of the mouse, and the use of integrated circuits, the 1960s saw demand for faster and more compact versions of the computer skyrocket.
Conway is perhaps best known for her work during her time at Xerox PARC which redeveloped Very large-scale integration (VLSI): the process of combining millions/billions of MOS (metal–oxide–semiconductor) transistors to create an integrated circuit on a single chip. VLSI greatly simplified the design of microchips and was scalable, meaning that microchips could replace the previously clunky large-scale computers common in the 1960s. It paved the way for smaller, portable, and accessible computers now present in so many areas of our lives.
Conway co-authored a textbook outlining the Mead-Conway VLSI design methodology that she developed with her Xerox colleague, Carver Mead. Introduction to VLSI Systems became a standard textbook in chip design and sold over 700,000 copies. It was foundational in the education of an entire generation of computer scientists. She began as an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1978 and developed the internationally renowned VLSI design course based on the ideas in this textbook: the syllabus and instructor’s guidebook were used around the world.
Conway also invented the internet-based infrastructure that would eventually be used to create the Metal Oxide Semiconductor Implementation Service, (MOSIS). This service allows universities, government agencies, research institutes, and more to test and fabricate microchip prototypes cost-effectively and efficiently.
Conway went on to work at DARPA, where she developed high-performance computing and autonomous systems technology for the United States Department of Defense before joining the University of Michigan in 1985 as a professor. By the time she retired from active teaching and research in 1998, Conway was an unmitigated success story of a woman in STEM.
However, Lynn Conway’s early career was fraught with ups and downs. Identifying as a transgender woman, Conway faced challenges based on society’s lack of acceptance for her gender identity. Throughout her life this often created barriers to her professionally.
Her first attempt at higher education ended in dropping out of the prestigious M.I.T physics programme, despite initially being ranked within the top 2% of her class, following a failed attempt at gender reassignment. After a short hiatus as a hearing aid repair technician, Conway enrolled at Columbia University in 1961, determined to put to use her love of discovery, research, and invention. Her success in university led her to IBM Research working on their Advanced Computing Systems project where she made very important inventions within the computer architecture.
Conway described herself as ‘living in “stealth” mode’ after being fired from IBM in 1968. Out of fear of losing her job, her friends, and her support network as she had done in 1968, Conway then kept her trans identity a secret. She had adopted a completely new identity when she was hired by Memorex which followed her when she was then head-hunted by Xerox PARC in 1973. She kept it a secret for decades.
While researching the secret history of an IBM supercomputer project, Mark Smotherman, computer science historian, noticed a glaring gap in the records of IBM and tracked down the brilliant innovations to Conway – before her transition. Now outed within her peer group, Conway decided to quietly come out. By 1999 she began to tell her story more publicly in order to support other individuals struggling with similar feelings. She took up a new role in her trailblazing life: trans advocate.
In her now archived website, lynnconway.com, Conway presented her story in her own words to ‘illuminate and normalize the issues of gender identity and the processes of gender transition.’ She saw the gap in support for many of the most vulnerable members of society and decided that she was in a position to share links to resources, words of support, information, and stories of other inspiring trans people. Her website engaged with the news and research that most impacted transgender individuals and delved into pressing issues facing the community.
As an activist, Conway advocates for fair and equal opportunities, employment protections, and rights for transgender people. One of many successful examples of this being the inclusion of transgender rights in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Code of Ethics in 2013, one of the world’s largest engineering professional societies. She has also continued to call out against the medicalisation and pathologisation of transgender individuals within the psychiatric field.
She was highlighted in The Trans100 in 2015, celebrated as one of the 21 Transgender People Who Influenced American Culture by Times Magazine in 2014, and named one of the Stonewall 40 trans heroes in 2009.
As Conway stated, ‘[i]f you want to change the future, start living as if you’re already there.’
Happy 85th birthday Lynn Conway!