Microchip pioneer and transgender activist Lynn Conway dies

13 Jun 2024

Prof Lynn Conway. Image: University of Michigan

Conway was fired from IBM for undergoing gender transition surgery in the 1960s, but went on to help make the creation of PCs and smartphones possible.

Prof Lynn Conway, a pioneering scientist in computer chip design and transgender activist, has died aged 86.

She has been described as the “hidden hand” of microchip design, working on innovations that paved the way for PCs and smartphones, according to the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) department of the University of Michigan, where she worked in the 1980s and ’90s.

Conway died at her home due to a heart condition, her husband told the Los Angeles Times. Business columnist Michael Hiltzik said she was “the bravest person I ever knew”.

She underwent gender transition surgery in the late 1960s while working for IBM and was fired from the organisation as a result. After this, she worked in various organisations including the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, where she helped fuel the microchip design revolution of the 1980s.

EECS claims Conway kept her role and contributions hidden for decades and that she preferred to stay out of the limelight for fear of her past.

“I didn’t mind being almost invisible in my field back then or that no one had a clue what I was really doing, much less who was doing it,” Conway wrote in the Huffington Post in 2013. “I was thrilled to even have a job.”

Conway came out publicly after her retirement and shared her story on her personal website to inspire and support young members of the transgender community. IBM would eventually issue a public apology for firing Conway – though this apology occurred nearly 52 years after she was fired.

Filmmaker and consumer activist Andrea James said Conway’s death is a “tremendous loss for me personally, for the transgender community, for science and for humanity”. She said that Conway overcame “profound anti-transgender discrimination to become one of history’s greatest scientists”.

“For over 20 years, Lynn and I worked closely to share information and wisdom that made gender transition easier for younger generations,” James said. “We also worked hard to push back against unscientific and unethical academics engaged in anti-transgender activism.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic