July 21, 2024

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Lynn Conway, Computing Pioneer and Transgender Advocate, Dies at 86

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Lynn Conway, a pioneering computer scientist who was fired by IBM in the 1960s after telling managers that she was transgender, despite her significant technological innovations — and who received a rare formal apology from the company 52 years later — died on June 9 in Jackson, Mich. She was 86.

Her husband, Charles Rogers, said she died in a hospital from complications of two recent heart attacks.

In 1968, after leaving IBM, Ms. Conway was among the earliest Americans to undergo gender reassignment surgery. But she kept it a secret, living in what she called “stealth” mode for 31 years out of fear of career reprisals and concern for her physical safety. She rebuilt her career from scratch, eventually landing at the fabled Xerox PARC laboratory, where she again made important contributions in her field. After she publicly disclosed her transition in 1999, she became a prominent transgender activist.

IBM offered its apology to her in 2020, in a ceremony that 1,200 employees watched virtually.

Ms. Conway was “probably our very first employee to come out,” Diane Gherson, then an IBM vice president, told the gathering. “And for that, we deeply regret what you went through — and know I speak for all of us.”

Ms. Conway’s innovations in her field were not always recognized, both because of her hidden past at IBM and because designing the guts of a computer is unsung work. But her contributions paved the way for personal computers and cellphones and bolstered national defense.

In 2009, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers gave Ms. Conway its Computer Pioneer Award, citing her “foundational contributions” to the development of supercomputers at IBM and her creation, at Xerox PARC, of a new way to design computer chips — “thereby launching a worldwide revolution.”

At Xerox in the 1970s, Ms. Conway, while working with Carver Mead of the California Institute of Technology, developed a way to pack millions of circuits onto a…

Trip Gabriel

2024-06-15 17:15:48

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