For this week’s Pioneers in Tech, Lynn Conway is in the spotlight. Lynn, a 2014 Computer History Museum fellow, belongs on any list of technology pioneers for her work alone. Working at Xerox PARC, she invented scalable design rules for VLSI chip design and an e-commerce infrastructure for rapid chip prototyping—all leading to the microchip revolution of the 1980s.
But her contributions to humanity go far beyond microchips. Conway’s first pioneering technology work was not at Xerox PARC in the 1970s but at IBM in the 1960s—but this work was unknown until the year 1999, when computer historians uncovered her 1968 gender transition from male to female. This transition led to her being fired from IBM and living the next 30 years in “stealth mode.” Since then, Conway has become a leading, respected pioneer in the fight for transgender rights and conversations about gender identity.
Born in New York in 1938, Conway studied physics at MIT and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Columbia University. Upon graduation, she joined IBM’s Advanced Computing Systems project, where she invented multiple-out-of-order dynamic instruction scheduling.
In 1966, she connected with Dr. Harry Benjamin, who wrote The Transsexual Phenomenon, the first book to describe transgender identities. Conway became of the earliest transgender individuals to receive gender affirming care—and for that, she was fired.
But as she began living as a transgender woman—albeit closeted—her career took off. In the 80s and 90s, she worked in academia, becoming a professor at the University of Michigan, and married her husband, Charlie. In 1999, after she was outed, Conway decided to take control of her story’s narrative and started a website documenting her experiences and offering resources for transgender individuals.
On Oct. 14, 2020, IBM publicly apologized to Conway for her firing and presented her with a lifetime achievement award.
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