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Lynn Conway’s Story

Lynn Conway’s Story
by Paul McLellan on 07-28-2013 at 12:08 am

 If you are my age, you know that the most influential book in that era on VLSI design was Carver Mead and Lynn Conway’s textbook, blah VLSI blah. Nobody can remember exactly what its title was, it was just referred to as Mead and Conway. In my opinion it was the most influential book on semiconductor design ever. It opened up VLSI design to computer scientists, and since they understood complexity they eventually won out over the EE guys as designs got insanely complicated…10,000 gates, how can we cope?

Lots of us (and even you youngsters who came later) owe a lot to Mead & Conway. So who were they? Carver Mead was a professor at CalTech and Lynn Conway was a researcher at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research something-beginning-with-C probably Center). But Lynn Conway had a deep secret that in those days she wasn’t ready to reveal.

She started life as a guy.

S/he had a hugely successful research career as a young researcher at IBM on supercomputing stuff that even today is part of the techniques in the most modern microprocessors, basically the foundations of out-of-order execution. But she was a woman trapped in a man’s body and eventually she decided she had to do the whole thing and do gender reassignment surgery. This was too much for IBM at the time (and let me be the first to point out that today’s IBM would never do this) so they fired him/her. She is private about what her real name was back then to protect lots of people from her family to her then-friends, and uses the name Robert Sanders for that period of her life.

 So she was basically screwed, with no family, friends or job. She got some positions as a contract programmer. OK, let’s face it, she was an incredibly good contract programmer. But how do you get from A to B.

The guys at PARC, which was just starting up, noticed her at Memorex, where she was working, and recruited her. PARC in that era was the most innovative computer science location in the world, blowing away Bell Labs and places like that, as well as every academic department from Stanford to MIT. A huge proportion of the top computer scientists in the world worked there. Including Lynn Conway.

I met her last summer at a party for the first time, at Dick Lyon’s house (inventor of the first optical mouse) although we’d exchanged a few emails.

This June, Lynn went to the White House to celebrate LBGT pride month. I live in San Francisco so this is a big deal here every year. But Lynn’s story is something even more of a big deal. The guys at PARC recruited her. Think how different the world might have been if that had not happened. Moore’s law would have advanced and presumably someone else would have tamed the complexity in some way. But Carver Mead and Lynn Conway were just in the right place at the right time to lead people like me into what became the VLSI world.

Lynn’s reminiscences here. Huffpost article by Lynn from last week here.

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