Did you know as you read this on your computer, or table, or smartphone that a trans woman made all that happen? That because of her invention modern computers are possible?
Yes, a trans woman made all that possible and just a few of her awards are…
- Fellow of the IEEE, 1985, "for contributions to VLSI technology
- National Achievement Award, Society of Women Engineers 1990
- Presidential Appointment to the United States Air Force Academy Board of Visitors, 1996
- Computer Pioneer Award, IEEE Computer Society, 2009
- Fellow Award, American Association for the Advance of Science (AAAS), 2016
IBM Apologizes For Firing Computer Pioneer For Being Transgender...52 Years Later
By Jeremy Alicandri
November 18, 2020
You’ve likely never heard of 82-year-old computer scientist Lynn Conway, but her discoveries power your smartphones and computers. Her research led to successful startups in Silicon Valley, supported national defense, and powered the internet.
Long before becoming a highly respected professor at the University of Michigan, Conway was a young researcher with IBM IBM -0.2%. It was there, on August 29, 1968, that IBM’s CEO fired her for reasons that are illegal today. Nearly 52 years later, in an act that defines its present-day culture, IBM apologized and sought forgiveness.
In 1964, Conway joined IBM Research, where she made major innovations in computer design, ensuring a promising career in the international conglomerate (IBM was the 7th largest corporation in the world at the time). Recently married and with two young daughters, she lived a seemingly perfect life. But Conway faced a profound existential challenge: she had been born as a boy.
Despite cultural clichés at that time, both her immediate family and IBM’s divisional management were accepting and supportive. However, when IBM’s Corporate Medical Director learned of her plans in 1968, he alerted CEO Thomas J. Watson, Jr., who fired Conway to avoid the public embarrassment of employing a transwoman.
Now many of you were not even alive back then, but when I was in college studying electronics there was a joke that you could spot an IBM salesman a mile away. First there were only men selling IBM products and second they all looked the same, they wore blue suits, white shirts with button-down collars, blue ties, and had flattop haircut.
Even so, she pressed on with her social, hormonal, and surgical transition, and began seeking employment as a woman in a secret new identity in early 1969. First finding work as a contract programmer, Conway rapidly ascended the career ladder. By 1971, she was working as a computer architect at Memorex Corporation. Her rising reputation led to her recruitment by the (soon to become famous) Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 1973.In the 80s where I worked they were designing custom integrated circuits (IC) and when I was in a meeting about the product I asked about learning more about the process and one of the engineers on the project gave me the book Introduction to VLSI Systems by Lynn Conway and Carver Mead. Almost twenty years later I learned about Lynn Conway and I remembered reading the book, at the time no one knew she was trans.
In 1977, while leading PARC research into enhanced methods for computer chip design, Conway began co-authoring a book on the methods with Carver Mead, a professor at Caltech. On sabbatical from PARC as a visiting professor at MIT, she created and taught an experimental course on Very Large Scale Integrated (VLSI) chip design based on the draft of her textbook with Mead.
For over 30 years, from 1968 onward, Conway never revealed she was transgender (excepting close friends, relatives, HR offices, and security-clearance agencies). However, in 1999, when computer historians began investigating her early innovations at IBM, she foresaw the inevitability of public outing. With the support of her husband Charlie (they’ve been together since 1987) she chose to reveal her gender history online, including the reason she had left IBM.Back then on a slow day at work I surfed the web looking up websites that had articles about the old computers that I learned programing on… IBM 1620 and IBM 360 computers. On one website I read about IBM 360 ACS (Advanced Computing Systems) and about this researcher who came up with dynamic instruction handling and then work got in the way of my reading about this so I booked marked the page. Months later I found the bookmarked and went to article… but the article now says Lynn Conway, hun? I remember that the it was about a man who discovered the dynamic instruction handling subroutine. Hmm… I wonder? I did a google search of her name and found this…
Lynn's StoryUntil her discovery all mathematical calculations were done on a computer one at a time and she thought… If A plus B equals C, and D times E equal F, and G divided H equals I then all the calculations can be done at the same time because they are independent variables and not dependent upon one another. It sped up the processing times.
This is the story of a woman who made amazing contributions to society,
in spite of intense ostracism and stigmatization just for trying to be herself,
and how she did it by taking on a secret new identity, and living her life in "stealth mode".
Oh yeah, what she discover it is simply this.
So now every time you pick up your smartphone or surf the web… remember a trans woman made it possible.