RIP Lynn Conway, Whose Work Gave Us VLSI And Much More

Lynn Conway, American engineer and computer scientist, passed away at the age of 86 from a heart condition on June 9th, at her Michigan home. Her work in the 1970s led to the integrated circuit design and manufacturing methodology known as Very Large Scale Integration, or VLSI, something which touches almost all facets of the world we live in here in 2024.

It was her work at the legendary Xerox PARC that resulted in VLSI, and its subsequent publication had the effect through the 1980s of creating a revolution in the semiconductor industry. By rendering an IC into a library of modular units that could be positioned algorithmically, VLSI enabled much more efficient use of space on the die, and changed the design process from one of layout into one of design. In simple terms, by laying out pre-defined assemblies with a computer rather than individual components by hand, a far greater density of components could be achieved, and more powerful circuits could be produced.

You may have also heard of Lynne Conway, not because of her VLSI work, but because as a transgender woman she found herself pursuing a parallel career as an activist in her later decades. As an MIT student in the 1950s she had tried to transition but been beaten back by the attitudes of the time, before dropping out and only returning to Columbia University to finish her degree a few years later in the early 1960s. A job at IBM followed, but when she announced her intent to transition she was fired from IBM and lost access to her family.

Rebuilding a career as a woman after losing everything in this way is hard, and something at which many trans women have struggled, but she successfully ascended through Memorex in the early 1970s to her work at PARC by the middle of the decade. She went on to a position in academia at the University of Michigan, and when faced with being outed around the millennium, she chose instead to come out herself. Over the following decades she successfully advocated for the rights of transgender people, and particularly those in the engineering and technology industries.

All Hackaday readers owe her a debt for her contribution to the technologies we make our own, and those of us who are transgender owe her a special thanks for being our very public advocate. As for IBM, they apologised for their treatment of her in 2020, by our reckoning about five decades too late.

47 thoughts on “RIP Lynn Conway, Whose Work Gave Us VLSI And Much More

  1. Great minds shunned like this is so sad. How many years of progress lost? How much earlier could we have reached certain technologies had our societies coped with simple tolerance and empathy? I still can’t get over what happened to Turing, and now this that I had no idea about.

    1. Keep in mind that most technical progress is down to a hivemind, not single individuals.

      In 1940s if it weren’t for US-supplied trucks, jeeps, shoes and canned food, Russia would lose the war against Germany and its allies (Finland, Japan, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia etc.). It was literally a shithole with technical abilities comparable to those of Afghanistan. No heavy industry, inside cities there was no electricity or telecomms infrastructure, only sustinence farming and so on.

      By 1960s they already had an automotive industry mass-manufacturing their own trucks, cars, tanks and IFVs. If you look at old photographs, in 1940s US lend-lease Jeeps were everywhere. By 1950s they were already replaced with GAZ cars.

      What we call VLSI circuits were already being developed by Japan, Russia and Europe. It’s just that US was the fastest to bring it to production, all thanks to its massive military-industrial complexes. Anyway, what’s so amazing? In 1981 Nintendo released NES computer game console, which used their own VLSI chips.

      In 1989 Russia had an autonomous Space Shuttle Buran – it’s the technology that only now is being re-developed by SpaceX and Boeing.

      As for Turing, it’s a shame what happened to him, but even without him we’d still get digital computers in 1940s, it’s simply the way history was set up for human race to develop. At this time US and UK already had automatic telephone exchanges and from that it’s only a simple step to automate it further and unlock computer technology – if you don’t believe me read “Code” by Charles Petzold.

      1. “As for Turing, it’s a shame what happened to him, but even without him we’d still get digital computers in 1940s”

        Fine… but how would the field of cryptography have been effected, particularly during a World War? Without his help in putting together a machine that could break Enigma messages in a short amount of time, the damage would have been potentially orders of magnitude worse.

        1. BTW: Enigma was invented in the early 1920s by German engineer Artur Scherbius. And the Enigma code was broken for the first time in 1932 by Polish mathematicians: Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski

          1. Would upvote you for this comment if I could. If I ever get to Poland, there is a monument to them in Poznan.

            Turing’s achievement was assembly line breaking of the keys with his improved Bombe, but the Poles did it first and presented the English and French with Enigma machines they had built themselves.

          2. While technically true, Without Turing and the many orders of increased computing capacity he invented and applied to the problem, the polish solution would have been so slow as to be almost useless.

        2. Also see Elizebeth Smith Friedman. A code breaking woman who had her work undercut by J. Edgar Hoover. It doesn’t matter that she was a woman except it kept her from being fully recognized for a while.

          1. Nobody working at Bletchley park except Turing is generally known and all their work is typically credited to him.

            See also: This thread.

            It seams to get any credit the key is not being a normal white man.

          2. @HaHa
            Seems you missed that Turing didn’t fall into the “normal” category at the time, and did not downplay the contributions of women. This is all bad pointless distraction from noting those who did contribute as you say. And we will never know all of them.

      2. The big problem with the “no great people, all things would have come to pass” argument is that it’s counterfactual. There’s no way to prove it or disprove it, because time only runs in the one direction and there are no do-overs to test the alternative hypothesis.

        Would the next Lynn Conway have been so interested in teaching? Because a large part of her legacy is not just the ideas she had, but the cadre of people to whom she spread them. And that makes a multiplier effect for the hivemind. In this case, one that spun up silicon valley.

        Sometimes ideas snowball, and it’s hard to look back and say that those same conditions would happen again. Sometimes the right person or ideas at the right time really do matter.

        1. Lol, because she is a woman.

          The worlds moving on around you. Lynn Conway and trans people like her have helped show other people they can have the courage to live openly as who they are. There’s only gonna be more openly trans people in the coming years.

          Buy yourself some programmer socks while stocks last.


        2. I am surprised that your comment hasn’t been deleted yet. Truth and facts often seem to be censored on a site that claims to run based on science and truth and facts. I’ve just accepted that the patients are running the asylum and waiting for the inevitable crash and burn, ala the Roman Empire.

      3. Nonsense, most technical progress results from individual bodies of work from particularly gifted people. You do not get inventions which push the boundary from a “hivemind.” This is just pure sophistry.

      4. You don’t know history and you are talking nonsense!
        What was “invented” in Russia were technologies stolen from Western countries (mainly from Germany and the USA)
        And the technologies invented in Russia were primitive and unreliable.
        This is why Russia lost the Cold War in the late 1980s
        because American President Ronald Reagan, introducing the “Star Wars” program in 1983, imposed on Russia such a great technological race that Russia lost it within 5 years
        which resulted in the collapse of the entire Eastern Bloc and the collapse of Russia.
        …Yes – they had the Buran space shuttle – which never flew with a crew and after one unmanned flight it was no longer suitable for flight :))) And many of its technology were stolen from NASA
        Read the earlier article about how many Western IC’s are there in Russian weapons:
        Poland was not Germany’s ally in WWII !!! Poland was the first country attacked by Germany in 1939, which started WWII

      5. Hive minds still require individuals to contribute.

        Losing access to particularly creative people, or simply the one that can see the solution to a problem, stifles progress.

        Even if that person only comes up with an idea months before someone else would, those months add up.

      6. Mr. or Ms. Gupta is not informed as it might be. Take a look at the Buran for instance. Remind you of anything? What happened to Turing was in the ’50s. No electricity is belied by period photographs.

      7. “Keep in mind that most technical progress is down to a hivemind, not single individuals.”

        Just to be clear, you think that “hivemind” a valid justification for the discrimination that Lynn Conway faced?

      8. I believe she cowrote the textbook used to taught the first engineering classes in vlsi methodology outside a particular corp silo and her or the other guy taught first class in same with each student producing a shsres die element or region for the semester. The alto program showed how it could be done before widely avil systems. seeded first gens of computer chips designed on computer rather than the draft and marker process say 6502. Moved everything up about. 2-3 years.

      9. You seem to be confused as to who was occupied by Germany and who was actually an ally of Germany.
        Finland: yes, but by September 1944 Finland was fighting the Nazis. Peace negotiations with the Allies had started in 1943.
        Japan: yes
        Hungary: complicated. Initially yes, later occupied by the Germans because they sought a secret peace pact with the Allies.
        Poland: hell no. The first country to be conquered by the Nazis and the start of WW2.
        Slovakia: yes.

  2. Any society which gatekeeps math, computing and engineering is stifling itself. Anyone of any background or identity is potentially a great inventor, a powerful mind and to falsely limit these opportunities could be the undoing of civilization. How many great minds have we squandered by not developing and encouraging them in the first place?

  3. Ok, after reading all the comments I got my conclusions, Russia is better, there are people that don’t like people with great minds and there are people that don’t like transgender people with greats minds. :) did I miss something?

    1. Sigh. Sinep Gupta was just trying to explain to you what material conditions are and that the great person of history theory doesn’t make sense. But because they mentioned Russia, you all lost your minds. And no, they weren’t saying Lynn didn’t matter. Nobody was anti-Lynn in this comment section. At the time of my posting. Except perhaps you?

      1. While I typically favor the idea of great trends over that of great men (wow, has that phrase ever been more inappropriate?), belittling the achievements of marginalized people while hiding behind a facade of logic is one of the most classic ways of pushing them back into the margins. I’m not saying Sinep was meaning to be actively biased, but this is exactly where unconscious bias tends most to push us to clutch our pearls. There’s no way such a comment would have been posted within minutes of an article on Turing, or Bell, or Babbage, or whomever else.

  4. The Mead and Conway Introduction to VLSI Systems book was amazing. Allowed me to tape out a 32-bit microcontroller as a master’s student in the mid-80’s. Before that book IC design was black magic, after, anyone could do it. I owe this book (and my prof at the time) so much! It’s one thing to come up with amazing technology, it’s a whole other ballgame to make it so easy.

  5. I saw/prompted a comment that, had she remained at IBM, the world might be much different.
    Her work might have funneled into IBM CPU design (which is what she was working on when fired), and/or VLSI could have ended up siloed and proprietary with IBM, rather than … being evangelized via PARC. (Go PARC!) (OTTH, there was a dozen years between 68 and 80, and it was a time of high mobility for Tech folk.)

  6. They also took her kids away. She was demonized through her divorce in a manner people continue to do towards transgender people today. Cisgender men sometimes get it rough too but oh boy does the court hate trans people. It hates trans men too. You can be the one who physically gave birth to children and have the court decide you’re too queer to raise them.

    1. I learned a lot about his life. His parents had a tough marriage and divorced early. That explains why he had gender dysphoria. Many people with gender dysphoria have an absent father. It’s a pattern we are not supposed to notice. I don’t care about the fact that he is transgender and I’m glad he was able to live a fulfilling life, but it tires me out how everyone has to pretend this man, who married a woman and fathered a child, is a woman and those who don’t get censored.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.