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Lynn Conway and the VLSI Revolution in Microchip Design

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Computer scientist, electrical engineer, inventor, and transgender activist Lynn Conway.

In 1979, Lynn Conway and Carver Mead published Introduction to VLSI Systems, a work that boiled the complexity of chip design down to its essentials and presented rules any interested computer scientist could grasp and implement.

Credit: Joseph Xu, courtesy of Lynn Conway

Last week my stepfather, a retired electrical engineer, passed away at the age of 89, and in the boxes and boxes of papers he had kept as the signifiers of his long life and work were sheaves upon sheaves of circuit blueprints, elegant statements in purple ink of logical relations laid out in sequences of transistors that represented the height of Eisenhower era computing intricacy. They are beautiful, not only aesthetically, or as a representation of a life now past, but as a reminder of a time when a single person could manageably lay out a computer's mind on a series of oversized pieces of paper.

That era seemed to be over in 1971, when Intel made its first microprocessor, the 4004, commercially available.  It boasted 2300 transistors, a daunting enough logical and geometric puzzle to unravel, but it would soon be dwarfed as next year's 8008 had 3500 transistors, 1974's 8080 boasted 4500, and the industry defining 8086 chip of 1978 featured some 29,000.  Under the strain of such intensive chip complexification, the computer industry was poised to fracture into a collection of independent, mutually incomprehensible, research fiefdoms.

Chip design was threatening to become so intense a discipline that only a walled off collection of engineering gurus could possibly understand its intricacies, leaving regular computer scientists completely out of the game of designing the devices that implemented their ideas.  That sense of helpless isolation in the face of mounting complexity, however, dissipated suddenly in 1979 when Lynn Conway and Carver Mead published Introduction to VLSI Systems, a work which took the complexity of chip design, boiled it down to its essentials, and presented rules that any interested computer scientist could grasp and implement, kickstarting a dizzying wave of creativity as graphic and interface engineers applied the new methods to produce ways of approaching computers that were unthinkable a decade before.

Lynn Conway (b. 1938), though listed second on the book cover, was the primary author of the text and though, from the point of view of the larger computing community, her name appeared as if materialized from the ether, she had by that point worked a number of under-the-radar revolutions that had the bad fortune of running hard against institutional inertia and social prejudice.

The fact of the matter was that, for the first thirty years of her life, Lynn Conway was not the person she was meant to be.


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