Lynn Conway

Lynn Conway
Photo by Charles Rogers
Associated organizations
IBM, Memorex, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center
Fields of study


IEEE Fellow, 1985, "For contributions to VLSI technology "

Lynn Conway is a pioneer of microelectronics chip design and a recipient of many honors, including election as a Member of the National Academy of Engineering - the highest professional recognition an engineer can receive.She is currently Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Emerita, at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. A revealing quotation for Lynns strong-willed personality, which sustained her through difficult years, is one stuck in a picture frame in her Ann Arbor office: "Play for more than you can afford to lose, and you will learn the game."

Life was not easy for young Lynn, who was born and raised as Robert, the first son of middle-class parents in Mount Vernon, New York. In those years, the 1940s and 1950s, people did not know of such a thing as gender identity disorder, and hence Lynn, who had the brain and gender identity of a girl, was forced to grow up as a boy.

As Robert, Lynn received her MS in electrical engineering from Columbia in 1963, and joined IBM Research at Yorktown Heights, New York, in 1964. At IBM she did pioneering research, inventing a powerful method for issuing multiple out-of-order instructions per machine cycle in supercomputers that made possible the creation of the first true super-scalar computer. This pioneering research remained anonymous for many years, due to the secret nature of the IBM project, which was disbanded in 1968. While at IBM Lynn decided to begin medical treatment to have a sex change. She left IBM, and lost all connections to the important work she had done there.

After surgery and with her new name, Lynn started her career all over again, joining Memorex in 1971, and then moving to the brand-new Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in 1973. Barely ten years after her gender transition, in 1978, Lynn had already achieved wide recognition in her field, owing to her pioneering research on VLSI systems. By then she was writing a seminal textbook on the subject, and she headed off to academia, where she found a challenging niche, joining the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1985.

Lynn's story is that of a woman who made amazing contributions to society, in spite of intense ostracism and stigmatization. "It's like building bridges," she says. "People can say the design stinks, your ideas aren´t any good. But if the bridge stands, it stands. People can look at me and say what they want. . . but take a look at my life and tell me if the bridge stands."

Further Reading

In 2009, Dr. Conway was the recipient of the IEEE Computer Society's Computer Pioneer Award.

See also: Lynn Conway's Website. In addition to an extensive biography, and much  material on transsexualism, her website includes a substantial collection of original primary documents on both on supercomputing at IBM and VSLI at Xerox Parc.