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Lynn Conway, revolutionary trans computer scientist & activist, dies at 86

Lynn Conway
Lynn Conway Photo: National Inventors Hall of Fame

Lynn Conway, a trailblazing transgender activist and pioneer in the world of microelectronics, passed away in her Jackson, Michigan home last Sunday at the age of 85.

Her husband, Charles Rogers, reported that she passed away due to a heart condition. He was by her side during her passing.

“I was by her side the entire time, and was holding her hand when she passed,” he said. “I don’t know what I will do without the love of my life.”

Conway worked on early supercomputers, contributing to the development of computers that used superscalar processors, a type of central processing unit (CPU) that efficiently handles multiple instructions along singular parallel lines. The processors are commonly used in high-powered desktop and server architecture.

Having little prior experience in the CPU development field, she was nevertheless called the “hidden hand” in microchip development, as she found a way to simplify and scale a method for designing microchips, revolutionizing the process forever. This shift in the field is known as “the Mead-Conway revolution” in Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI), and it led to the types of microchips seen today in mobile phones and tablets.

“My field would not exist without Lynn Conway,” said Valeria Bertacco, a professor at University of Michigan, where Conway worked as a professor emerita of electrical engineering and computer science. 

“Chips used to be designed by drawing them with paper and pencil like an architect’s blueprints in the pre-digital era,” Bertacco wrote. “Conway’s work developed algorithms that enabled our field to use software to arrange millions, and later billions, of transistors on a chip.”

Conway was initiated in 1989 into the National Academy of Engineering, and last year was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

She also held several patents and multiple honorary doctorate degrees from universities across the nation.

She first tried to transition at MIT in 1957, However, she faced an environment hostile to trans people along with medical professionals who had no clue how to help her transition. She remained in the closet for years afterward.

She went on to earn both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Columbia University in the early 1960s.

When she was hired at IBM in the 1960s, she began her work on supercomputers, becoming a core member of the company’s team. Around this time, she came out to her coworkers and transitioned, receiving care from Harry Benjamin, a German-American endocrinologist and sexologist who established a groundbreaking clinic for gender-affirming transition-related healthcare. 

While Conway’s initial reception at the company was positive, she was later fired for her transgender identity. The company claimed that she did not fit its workplace culture due to her being trans.

About 52 years later, IBM issued an apology for firing her. They said she played an instrumental role in the company’s success.

After realizing that she was likely going to face heightened discrimination for her gender, she decided to go “stealth” – a term for when trans people try to appear as though they’re a cisgender person of their identified gender. In doing this, she had to drop all of her prior workplace experience from her public professional credentials, essentially starting from nothing.

She managed to get hired by Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 1973, where she rose through the ranks and began her work on microchips.

Not long after, she was recruited by the Department of Defense for DARPA (the Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency).

In 1999, she came out to the public and started openly presenting as a trans woman. She began to fiercely advocate for transgender rights, opposing conversion therapy practices from the likes of psychologist Kenneth Zucker. 

Over time, she became a role model for trans people of all ages across the nation, proving to the world that it is possible for a trans person to live a happy and successful life.

“Lynn Conway’s example of engineering impact and personal courage has been a great source of inspiration for me and countless others,” Michael Wellman, Lynn A. Conway Collegiate professor, said following the news of her death.

“I was privileged to know her as a colleague and honored to hold a collegiate professorship in her name,” Wellman added,

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