In Memoriam: Lynn Conway (1938–2024)

By Dag Spicer | June 14, 2024

Pioneer in Computing and Transgender Advocacy

Lynn Ann Conway, trailblazing computer scientist, electrical engineer, inventor, and transgender rights advocate, passed away on June 9, 2024, at the age of 86. Her contributions to technology and personal courage in living her truth have left indelible marks on the world.

Born on January 2, 1938, in Mount Vernon, New York, Conway's early life was marked by a curiosity about the world and a deep interest in how things worked. She showed an early aptitude for mathematics and science and earned a BSEE (1962) and MSEE (1963) at Columbia University, joining IBM Research at Yorktown Heights upon graduation. There she worked on the ACS Project where she invented generalized dynamic instruction handling—a key advance used in out-of-order execution of instructions and still used by most modern computer processors to improve performance.

During her time at IBM, Conway began her journey of gender transition. However, when she revealed her plans to IBM management in 1968, she faced the harsh reality of that era's societal prejudices and was dismissed from her position. IBM apologized in 2020. Conway said that she “lost not only her career and professional reputation, but also her family, relatives, friends and colleagues. She faced a frighteningly uncertain future without a soul in the world to help her other than her doctors.”

Despite this setback, Conway completed her transition and re-entered the workforce under her new identity, joining Memorex Corporation and then the famed Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), a computing technology hothouse filled with the country’s brightest minds. At PARC in 1979, she coauthored the paradigm-changing textbook Introduction to VLSI Systems with Carver Mead, a work that revolutionized the design of computer chips and influenced generations of engineers.

The book that changed everything.

Conway, who was made a Computer History Museum Fellow in 2014, “for her work in developing and disseminating new methods of integrated circuit (IC) design,” had no experience with ICs before she developed this simpler, scalable method for designing them with Mead. The textbook, and the courses it spawned, standardized and democratized a process that was once the sole territory of specialists at large, private semiconductor firms. Thousands of students were soon trained in what came to be known as the Mead-Conway design methodology in Very Large-Scale Integration (VLSI).

While at PARC Conway also invented and demonstrated an internet infrastructure for rapid chip prototyping, spawning the "fabless-design + silicon-foundry" paradigm of semiconductor design and manufacturing. The resulting "MOSIS" system enabled the rapid development of thousands of chip designs, leading to many major startup companies in the 1980s and beyond. Mead-Conway made VLSI design accessible to engineers and students worldwide and laid the foundation for the modern semiconductor industry’s next leap forward.

Conway at Xerox PARC in 1977.

As University of Michigan engineering professor Valeria Bertacco notes, “Chips used to be designed by drawing them with paper and pencil like an architect’s blueprints in the pre-digital era. 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 a dedicated educator. As visiting faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), she experimentally introduced the first Mead-Conway VLSI course in 1978. By 1983, only four years after the book’s introduction, these VLSI design courses had spread to nearly 120 universities.

I’d love to get an award for simply creating one of the greatest-ever MIT hacks. It was so much fun! Each student could learn how and then design their own silicon chip. They didn’t know VLSI had just been invented; they didn’t even need to understand it when they started. They were just given the minimum set of knowledge needed to start making things.

— Lynn Conway

Lynn Conway's impact extended far beyond her technical contributions. She was a strong advocate for transgender rights and visibility, using her own experiences to foster understanding and acceptance. After her transition became public in the late 1990s, she became an inspiration to many within the LGBTQ+ community. Her courage in sharing her story is important in breaking down barriers and combating the stigma faced by transgender individuals. She provided a role model for many people, demonstrating that it is possible to achieve greatness while living authentically.

Grace Hsia, project manager and CoE alumnus, hugs Lynn Conway at the Own It Leading Inclusion: Gender In Engineering keynote event on November 18, 2014. Photo: Joseph Xu

Throughout her life, Conway received numerous awards and honors recognizing her pioneering work and advocacy. These included being named a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics engineers (IEEE) and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

Lynn Conway's personal life was marked by a quiet strength. She shared a loving and supportive partnership with her husband, Charlie, whom she married in 2002. Together, they built a life filled with love, mutual respect, and shared passions. Lynn is survived by Charlie, who was by her side when she passed.

Main image: Lynn Conway, 2014 CHM Fellow.

For More

Visit Lynn Conway’s website:

Read more about Lynn Conway's transgender advocacy in Courage, Resilience, and Sharing.

About The Author

Dag Spicer oversees the Museum’s permanent historical collection, the most comprehensive repository of computers, software, media, oral histories, and ephemera relating to computing in the world. He also helps shape the Museum’s exhibitions, marketing, and education programs, responds to research inquiries, and has given hundreds of interviews on computer history and related topics to major print and electronic news outlets such as NPR, the New York Times, The Economist, and CBS News. A native Canadian, Dag most recently attended Stanford University before joining the Museum in 1996.

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