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

This Aug. 2023 photo shows Lynn Ann Conway at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
This Aug. 2023 photo shows Lynn Ann Conway at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Marcin Szczepanski/University of Michigan via AP
Lynn Conway, a pioneer in the design of microchips that are at the heart of consumer electronics who overcame discrimination as a transgender person, has died at age 86.

Her June 9 death was announced by the University of Michigan, where Conway was on the engineering faculty until she retired in 1998.

“She overcame so much, but she didn’t spend her life being angry about the past,” said Valeria Bertacco, computer science professor and U-M vice provost. “She was always focused on the next innovation.”

Conway is credited with developing a simpler method for designing microchips in the 1970s, along with Carver Mead of the California Institute of Technology, the university said.

“Chips used to be designed by drawing them with paper and pencil like an architect’s blueprints in the pre-digital era,” Bertacco said. “Conway’s work developed algorithms that enabled our field to use software to arrange millions, and later billions, of transistors on a chip.”

Conway joined IBM in 1964 after graduating with two degrees from Columbia University. But IBM fired her after she disclosed in 1968 that she was undergoing a gender transition. The company apologized in 2020 — more than 50 years later — and awarded her a lifetime achievement award for her work.

An employee who is transgender had brought Conway’s story to the attention of executives.

“We deeply regret what you went through, and I know I speak for all of us,” said Diane Gherson, who was senior vice president of human resources, according to a transcript.

Dario Gill, director of research, told Conway: “Quite simply: You have helped define the modern computing industry.”

Conway told The New York Times that the turnabout was unexpected and “stunning.”

IBM recognized her death Friday.

“Lynn Conway broke down barriers for the trans community and pushed the limits of technology through revolutionary work that is still impacting our lives to this day,” said Nickle LaMoreaux, IBM’s chief human resources officer.

In a 2014 video posted on YouTube, Conway reflected on her transition, saying “there was hardly any knowledge in our society even about the existence of transgender identities” in the 1960s.

“I think a lot of that’s really hit now because those parents who have transgender children are discovering … if they let the person blossom into who they need to be they often see just remarkable flourishing,” Conway said.

The native of Mount Vernon, New York, had five U.S. patents. Conway’s career included work at Xerox, the National Science Foundation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the U.S. Defense Department. She also had honorary degrees from many universities, including Princeton University.