Lynn Conway, computing pioneer and transgender advocate, dies at 86

Lynn Conway, a pioneering computer scientist who was fired from IBM in the 1960s after telling managers she was transgender despite her significant technological innovations — and who received a rare formal apology from the company 52 years later — died on June 9 in Jackson, Michigan. She was 86 years old.

Her husband, Charles Rogers, said she died in hospital from complications from two recent heart attacks.

In 1968, after leaving IBM, Ms. Conway was among the first Americans to undergo gender reassignment surgery. But she kept it a secret, living in what she called “stealth” mode for 31 years out of fear of career retaliation and concern for her physical safety. She rebuilt her career from the ground up, eventually landing at the legendary Xerox PARC lab, where she once again made major contributions to her field. After publicly revealing her transition in 1999, she became a prominent transgender activist.

IBM offered her an apology in 2020, in a ceremony attended virtually by 1,200 employees.

Ms. Conway was “probably our first employee to come out,” Diane Gherson, then a vice president at IBM, said at the meeting. “And for that, we are deeply sorry for what you went through – and we know that I speak for all of us.”

Conway's innovations in her field have not always been recognized, both because of her hidden past at IBM and because designing the insides of a computer is unsung work. But her contributions paved the way for personal computers and cell phones and strengthened national defense.

In 2009, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers awarded Ms. Conway its Computer Pioneer Award, citing her “seminal contributions” to the development of supercomputers at IBM and her creation, at Xerox PARC, of ​​a new way of designing computer chips – “thus launching a world revolution”.

At Xerox in the 1970s, Conway, while working with Carver Mead of the California Institute of Technology, developed a way to fit millions of circuits into a microchip, a process known as large-scale integrated design, or VLSI.

“My field would not exist without Lynn Conway,” said Valeria Bertacco, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, in an online tribute to Ms. Conway. “Chips were designed by drawing them with pencil and paper like an architect's blueprints in the pre-digital age. Conway’s work developed algorithms that allowed our industry to use software to place millions, and later billions, of transistors on a chip.”

Lynn Ann Conway was born on January 2, 1938 in Mount Vernon, New York, to Rufus and Christine Savage. Her father was a chemical engineer for Texaco and her mother taught kindergarten. The couple divorced when Lynn, the eldest of two children, was 7 years old.

“Although I was born and raised a boy,” Ms. Conway wrote in a lengthy personal account of her life that she began publishing online in 2000, “throughout my childhood I felt like, and desperately wanted to be, a girl . .”

His mathematical and scientific talents were immediately evident. At 16 he built a reflecting telescope with a six-inch lens.

As a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s, she injected herself with estrogen and dressed as a woman off campus.

But the contradictions of her double life caused her intense stress; her grades dropped and she dropped out of MIT

He enrolled at Columbia University in 1961 and earned bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering.

She was offered a position at IBM's research center in Yorktown Heights, New York, where she was assigned to the secretive Project Y, which was designing the world's fastest supercomputer. When the engineers moved to Menlo Park, California, Ms. Conway moved to what would soon become the global technology hub known as Silicon Valley.

By then she was married to a nurse and the couple had two daughters. “The marriage itself was an illusion,” Ms. Conway wrote. She had lost none of her overwhelming belief that she was inhabiting the wrong body, and at one point she held a gun to her head in an attempt to end her life.

In the mid-1960s he learned about pioneering hormonal and surgical procedures performed by a handful of doctors. She told her husband about her desire to transition, which broke up the marriage. For many years her mother prevented her from having any contact with her children.

“When IBM fired me, all my family, relatives, friends and even many colleagues simultaneously lost faith in me,” Ms. Conway wrote on her website. “They were ashamed to be seen with me and felt very embarrassed about what I was doing. None of them would have anything to do with me from then on. “

Looking for work after transitioning, she was rejected for a job after disclosing her medical history. She neither felt she could mention her work history at IBM. “I had to start all over again practically from scratch technically and prove myself once again,” she wrote.

“The idea of ​​being 'outlet' and somehow declared 'a man' was an unthinkable thing to avoid at all costs,” he added, “so for the next 30 years I almost never spoke about my past to anyone except close friends and some lovers.

She eventually found work as a contract programmer. That job led to a better position at Memorex Corporation, the tape recording company, and, in 1973, to a job at Xerox's new Palo Alto Research Center, a center of intellectual power and innovation that famously gave birth to the personal computer, laptop. point-and-click user interface and Ethernet protocol.

Ms. Conway's innovation in designing complex computer chips with Dr. Mead was codified in their 1979 textbook, “Introduction to VLSI Systems,” which became a standard textbook for waves of computer science students and engineers.

In 1983, Ms. Conway was recruited to lead a supercomputer program at the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Having passed her security clearance reassured her that being transgender was becoming less stigmatized.

She went on to accept positions as professor and associate dean at the University of Michigan's school of engineering, from which she retired in 1988. She was elected to the Electronic Design Hall of Fame and the National Academy of Engineering.

In the late 1990s, a researcher exploring IBM's work in the 1960s came across Ms. Conway's contributions to computer design, which had remained almost entirely unacknowledged because of the past identity she had hidden.

At IBM he had developed a way to program a computer to perform multiple tasks at once, reducing processing time. Known as dynamic instruction scheduling, the technology has been incorporated into many superfast computers.

Fearful of being discovered by research into the IBM story, Ms. Conway decided to tell the story herself, on her website and in interviews with the Los Angeles Times and Scientific American.

In 2002 she married Mr. Rogers, an engineer she met on a canoe trip in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In addition to him, she is survived by her daughters, who Mr. Rogers said were largely estranged from her, and six grandchildren.

In retirement, she became an elder statesman of the transgender community. She emailed and spoke with many who were transitioning, shared information about gender surgeries, and advocated for transgender acceptance.

He also campaigned against psychotherapists who, according to activists, sought to define transgenderism as a pathology.

On her website, Ms. Conway reflected on the growing, if imperfect, acceptance of transgender people since she hid her transition.

“Fortunately, those dark days are behind us,” he wrote. “Today, many tens of thousands of people in transition have not only transitioned to happy and fulfilling lives, but are also open and proud of their accomplishments.”

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