Lynn Conway, who sparked the very large-scale integration (VLSI) revolution in computing, has always been adventurous. As an early woman engineer, she views invention as a natural part of life’s journey.
By Seabright McCabe, SWE Contributor
On October 26, 2023, Lynn Conway, emerita professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF), in Alexandria, Virginia, for her pioneering invention of very large-scale integration (VLSI), the design rules and methodology that revolutionized the global microelectronics industry. Her work is at the core of today’s electronics, from mobile phones, computers, and automotive electronics to medical devices and the Internet of Things.
“I’m filled with joy to be inducted into the NIHF community,” Conway said. “And then, through NIHF, to help provide hope, stimulation, and encouragement for the young folks who follow, as they reach for their dreams.”
Now 85, Conway brims with playful ideas and abstractions. “If there’s anything to notice about me, it’s that I’ve always had fun,” she said, likening engineering to an adventure sport. “Each sphere of adventure you enter can teach you so much about life. For instance, taking risks as technology evolves is a great way to participate in that ‘sport,’” she said. “You take part in a kind of technosocial evolution, and if you’re lucky, you might add a new innovation that changes everything.”
“Any one person can leave tracks that echo throughout the whole structure. So, it’s not about celebrating individuals, but realizing and celebrating together what fun this all is.”
– Lynn Conway
Right from the start
In 1971, Intel created the 4004, the first microprocessor. “They were mainly making two things: memory chips, and then, every few years, a new microprocessor,” Conway said. “Every process was optimized for that chip. So, with every new chip, they had to start all over again.
“The process engineers, layout designers, and circuit designers didn’t know about each other’s work, much less computer architecture,” she continued. “Because of my background at IBM, where I had explored every level, I knew how to work all across that space. I also knew the history of computers, and the community of people trying to explore that knowledge frontier.”
Conway was recruited by the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 1973, becoming a research fellow and manager of its VLSI system design area. There, she began collaborating with others at research universities through the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), one of the technical foundations of what would later become the internet. “It was a magic combination of people, ideas, and things that blew out VLSI,” she said. The work resulted in a simplified set of design rules so no one needed to be a physicist to design a microchip anymore, and so that a multitude of functions could be printed on a single microchip wafer. Faster, smaller, and more powerful devices were enabled by this work.
Rolling out VLSI
As visiting faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Conway experimentally introduced the first VLSI course in 1978. “I’d love to get an award for simply creating one of the greatest-ever MIT hacks,” she said. “It was so much fun! Each student could learn how and then design their own silicon chip. They didn’t know VLSI had just been invented; they didn’t even need to understand it when they started. They were just given the minimum set of knowledge needed to start making things.”
Conway’s course teamed electronics engineering and computer science students for its projects. “With all that creativity, collaboration, and competition, statistically something interesting was bound to happen,” she said.
She began shipping chip design files to PARC for fabrication. “We printed large plots of the designs and hung them on the walls,” she said. “Knowing they would be made in Silicon Valley empowered the students in a deeply profound way. They wanted to jump into this completely lunatic future that nobody else had a clue about, and they could because they were creating it.”
“If you don’t know where technology came from, how do you know where it’s going? Learn how past and present technology came to be — find muses in history to give you key ideas about how things work.”
– Lynn Conway
Write it down
Conway had another, accidental epiphany for spreading the VLSI methodology. Terrified of lecturing, she had transcribed each lecture into full text and graphics so nothing would be missed. The result was a virtual script, right down to how and when to communicate with PARC for fabrication. Any confident teacher could learn it and teach the course.
That script became Introduction to VLSI Systems, a textbook she co-authored with colleague Carver Mead (Addison-Wesley, 1979). It was a wild success, and by 1983, had spread to nearly 120 universities. “I was chasing a dream unfolding in ways I couldn’t predict,” she said. “At that time in my life, I’d have been long gone if I hadn’t had that joy.
“People at Stanford and Berkeley couldn’t believe that this was coming out of MIT,” Conway recalled. “And they definitely didn’t know it was me. Living in ‘stealth mode’ back then, I didn’t want anyone investigating who I was. It would have ended my career and killed the reputation of the whole thing.”
Conway, who had undergone gender transition in 1968, had reason to fear exposure. While at IBM, she attempted to come out and was fired. (The company formally apologized in 2020.) Though devastating, that experience was one of many that led to her signature achievements. “I went down the gender path, and everything I’ve done came out of that,” she said.
Though she experienced discrimination first as a woman in tech, and later as a trans woman, none of it stopped her. Since retiring from the University of Michigan in 1998, she has become an active supporter of transgender rights and belonging through her website.
History informs the future
Conway urges engineers to study the history of their field. “If you don’t know where technology came from, how do you know where it’s going?” she said. “Learn how past and present technology came to be — find muses in history to give you key ideas about how things work.”
She sees artificial intelligence as an additional step in the technosocial evolution she experienced, primarily for its ability to offload tedious tasks to machines. “Now we’re making things happen in nanoseconds,” she said. “In the future, we can ‘sim’ all scenarios for the best outcomes [and] fix the things that keep us from living in a better reality.
“My story is interesting, but without realizing it, many of us are also intense participants in evolving the things that entangle us all,” Conway said. “Any one person can leave tracks that echo throughout the whole structure. So, it’s not about celebrating individuals, but realizing and celebrating together what fun this all is.”
Conway highly recommends the engineering life. “A scientist can say what ‘is,’ but only because an engineer made a tool that helped them discover it,” she said. “The doing of that is a joy to be shared. When you suddenly see a way to make something work that didn’t before — the moment you get it, you’ve already done it.”