Remembering Lynn Conway

In early June, all of us at NCWIT were saddened to learn Lynn Conway — a true tech revolutionary — passed on. Her pioneering work in microchip design was foundational in setting the stage for the innovative tech landscape we live in today, and her courage has inspired many in the NCWIT community and beyond. With fond remembrance and gratitude for her remarkable contributions and presence, we honor and celebrate her profound impact.

More: Tribute to Lynn Conway, by NCWIT Co-Founder Telle Whitney

“Conway was a brilliant computer scientist …. with a mind that glistened with insights from diverse fields, astronomy to anthropology to historical philosophy.”

– Chip Miller, in his 2022 New York Times Best-Selling Book, “Chip Wars: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology

Lynn Conway (1938 – 2024)

9811 Lynn Conway Professor Emerita for American Society for Engineering Education
Lynn Conway for American Society for Engineering Education. Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography, University of Michigan.

An Award-Winning Legacy

Lynn Conway was at the forefront of a burgeoning tech boom. While working at IBM in the 1960s, she invented a key advance used by most modern computer processors to improve performance and paved the way for the proliferation of consumer devices and the chips that now enable AI. She is also credited with developing simpler methods for designing microchips in the 1970s. Colleagues described her as always focused on the next innovation.

Announcement: The legacy of Lynn Conway, chip design pioneer and transgender rights advocate

“Chips used to be designed by drawing them with paper and pencil like an architect’s blueprints in the pre-digital era,” Valeria Bertacco, Computer Science Professor and Vice Provost at the University of Michigan — an NCWIT Higher Ed Alliance member institution, told the Associated Press. “Conway’s work developed algorithms that enabled our field to use software to arrange millions, and later billions, of transistors on a chip.”

Color photograph of Lynn Conway speaking at the 2019 NCWIT Summit while accepting the Pioneer in Tech Award
Color photograph of Lynn Conway speaking at the 2019 NCWIT Summit while accepting the Pioneer in Tech Award. Photo by Chris Carruth for NCWIT.

Obituary: Lynn Conway, microchip pioneer who overcame transgender discrimination, dies at 86

Conway was a dean and member of the engineering faculty at the university until she retired in 1998, and then held the title professor emerita while remaining engaged and an outspoken advocate for women in STEM and transgender rights. Prior to joining the university in 1985, she initiated the Mead-Conway very large-scale integrated (VLSI) chip design revolution, which led to a worldwide restructuring of computer science and electrical engineering education and was pivotal for developing microelectronics industries, creating a foundry framework for chip design and production that was a boon to tech startups in the 1980s and 1990s and a path to electronic design automation.

NCWIT Bio: Lynn Conway

In celebration of these groundbreaking milestones, NCWIT named Lynn Conway as the recipient of the 2019 Pioneer in Tech Award. At the 2019 NCWIT Summit, Conway joined to accept her award and spoke about the importance of inclusive technical spaces. Watch the video clip from the NCWIT archives below to hear some of her insights.

Conway was also celebrated with many awards and honorary degrees for her remarkable contributions to the field of computing. She was inducted into the Electronic Design Hall of Fame in 2002, and the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 2023. Throughout her groundbreaking journey, she won the Electronics Award for Achievement with Carver Mead in 1981; the Harold Pender Award with Mead and the IEEE EAB Major Educational Innovation Award in 1984; the John Price Wetherill Medal with Mead and Secretary of Defense Meritorious Civilian Service Award in 1985; the National Achievement Award from the Society of Women Engineers in 1990; the Fellow Award from the Computer History Museum in 2014; the IEEE/RSE James Clerk Maxwell Medal in 2015; and the IBM Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020. The latter was announced after the company apologized for firing her when she announced her gender transition almost 50 years earlier, a move Conway described to The New York Times as “stunning.”

Scientific American: Remembering Lynn Conway, of the Conway Effect, who helped launch a computing revolution

In addition to these accolades, Conway also held a number of honorary doctorates and fellowships. In 2005, she was named Engineer of the Year by the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, and was also named as one of the “Stonewall 40 Trans Heroes” by the National LGBTQ Task Force in 2009. To learn more about her, read her words, and see photographs of her life, visit her website.

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