Lynn Conway’s Legacy: More Than the First Superscalar Computer

Lynn Conway

Lynn Conway’s Legacy: More Than the First Superscalar Computer

Key Points

  • Lynn Conway is a computer scientist, engineer, professor, inventor, and transgender activist, known for her influential work in computer science and engineering.
  • Conway invented multiple-issue out-of-order dynamic instruction scheduling, which is still used in high-performance microprocessors today.
  • She made significant contributions to VLSI design methodology, including the invention of ‘multiproject wafers’ and the development of scalable design rules.
  • Conway’s work with MOSIS has produced over 50,000 circuit designs for commercial use worldwide.
  • She joined DARPA and was a key developer in the Defense Department’s Strategic Computing Initiative.

Who is Lynn Conway?

Lynn Ann Conway is a computer scientist, engineer, professor, and inventor. She is one of the most influential computer scientists in the modern world, and her work continues to be used and recognized by companies and startups today. She performed engineering work for IBM, Xerox, and DARPA.

Outside of her computer science and engineering work, Conway is a well-known activist for LGBTQ+ rights, especially transgender rights. Conway’s legacy in technology and humanitarian rights activism will be felt for years. 

Early Life

Lynn Conway hails from White Plains, New York. When she was a child, she built a six-inch reflector telescope during the summer as she was highly interested in astronomy. 

Conway excelled in science and mathematics courses in high school and entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1995. However, she dropped out in despair following a failed transition from male to female.

After dropping out of MIT, Conway spent several years working as an electronics technician. Then, she resumed her schooling at Columbia University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. She earned a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering in 1962 and 1963.


Lynn Conway’s career can be neatly split into two phases. Her pre-transition and post-transition careers looked very different.

IBM and Superscalar Computers

IBM Research recruited Conway in 1964. She worked in their Yorktown Heights, New York facility and was chosen to join their architecture team. She worked alongside fellow researchers John Cocke, Herbert Schorr, Fran Allen, Ed Sussenguth, and Brian Randell, among other researchers, on the Advanced Computing Systems project, an advanced supercomputer project.

While working on the Advanced Computing Systems project, Conway invented multiple-issue out-of-order dynamic instruction scheduling. These ACS processors are thought to be the first superscalar designs. These designs are still often used today in high-performance microprocessors.

Xerox, VLSI, and DARPA

Due to the legal precedents at the time, Conway lost access to her children when she began her transition and was released from her position at IBM in 1968 when she vocalized her intent to transition medically.

Upon the completion of her transition in 1968, Conway changed her name and resumed her career. She began as a contract programmer for Computer Applications, Inc. After that, she took a position at Memorex, working from 1969 until 1972.

In 1973, she joined Xerox PARC. Xerox PARC had her leading the Large Scale Integration (LSI) Systems group, working under Bert Sutherland. While working at PARC, Conway invented “multiproject wafers” (MPW.) This technology allowed for packing multiple circuit designs into a single silicon wafer. Introducing this technology to the Xerox PARC increased production speeds while decreasing production costs, making it highly valuable.

After this invention, Conway began working with Ivan Sutherland and Carver Mead from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) on the Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) design methodology. Conway was a co-author of Introduction to VLSI Systems. This publication was groundbreaking and is now a core textbook for chip design.

Introduction to VLSI Systems sees use by over 120 universities. Conway’s work with Mead became a core part of VLSI design methodology, and Conway’s integration of MOSIS/MPC79 innovations saw at least 70,000 sales.

By 1978, Conway was acting as a visiting professor of computer science and electrical engineering at MIT. During this time, she was teaching what would become a famous VLSI class based on a drafted Mead-Conway text. As a researcher and inventor, Conway continued to make significant contributions to computer science.

Her contributions include scalable, dimensionless design rules that made chip design and production and design tools much more simple. She also invented an internet-based infrastructure that allowed for short-run fabrication and mass rapid prototyping of chip designs, later institutionalized as the Metal Oxide Semiconductor Implementation Service (MOSIS) in 1981. Since the infrastructure was institutionalized, it has produced over 50,000 circuit designs for commercial use by government agencies, electronics firms, and research and educational institutions worldwide.

After her time at Xerox PARC, Conway joined DARPA. She was a major developer in the Defense Department’s Strategic Computing Initiative. This project studied intelligent weapons technology, autonomous systems, and high-performance computing.

Finally, she worked at the University of Michigan as a professor teaching computer science and electrical engineering courses and as an Associate Dean of Engineering. She taught at the University of Michigan until she retired as a Professor Emerita in 1998 from the University of Michigan.

Lynn Conway
Lynn Conway has accomplished many great feats in her career that have been instrumental to technology today.

©LynnConway / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license – License

Lynn Conway: Awards and Achievements

  • Electronics 1981 Award for Achievement
  • Harold Pender Award of the Moore School, University of Pennsylvania
  • IEEE EAB Major Educational Innovation Award
  • Fellow of the IEEE
  • John Price Wetherill Medal of the Franklin Institute
  • Secretary of Defense Meritorious Civilian Service Award
  • Member of the National Academy of Engineering
  • National Achievement Award, Society of Women Engineers
  • Presidential Appointment to the United States Air Force Academy Board of Visitors
  • Honorary Doctorate, Trinity College
  • Electronic Design Hall of Fame
  • Engineer of the Year, National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals
  • Computer Pioneer Award, IEEE Computer Society
  • Member of the Corporation, Emerita, The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory
  • Fellow Award, Computer History Museum
  • Honorary Doctorate, Illinois Institute of Technology
  • Steinmetz Memorial Lecture, IEEE/Union College
  • IEEE/RSE James Clerk Maxwell Medal
  • Magill Lecture in Science, Technology and the Arts, Columbia University
  • Honorary Doctorate, University of Victoria
  • Fellow Award, American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • Honorary Doctorate and Commencement Address, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  • Pioneer in Tech Award, National Center for Women in Technology
  • Lifetime Achievement Award, IBM Corporation
  • Induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame
  • Honorary Doctorate, Princeton University

Lynn Conway: Publications

  • Introduction to VLSI Systems
  • THE MPC ADVENTURES: Experiences with the Generation of VLSI Design and Implementation Methodologies
  • The Design of VLSI Design Methods
  • Reminiscences of the VLSI Revolution: How a Series of Failures Triggered a Paradigm Shift in Digital Design
  • The Disappeared: Beyond Winning and Losing
  • IBM-ACS: Reminiscences and Lessons Learned from a 1960’s Supercomputer Project.
  • Lynn Conway’s IBM-ACS Archive
  • Dynamic Instruction Scheduling
  • ACS Simulation Technique
  • MPM Timing Simulation
  • ACS Logic Design Conventions: A Guide for the Novice
  • A Proposed ACS Logic Simulation System
  • The Computer Design Process: A Proposed Plan for ACS.
Full NameLynn Ann Conway
Birthdate (Month, Date, Year)January 2, 1938 
Place of BirthWhite Plains, New York
Fields of ExpertiseElectrical Engineering and Computer Science
InstitutionsIBM, Xerox PARC, DARPA
Notable ContributionsVLSI Design Methodology, MOSIS

Frequently Asked Questions

Who is Lynn Conway?

Lynn Conway is an electrical engineer, computer scientist, professor, and Dean of Engineering.

What did Lynn Conway invent?

Lynn Conway was involved in the invention of the first superscalar computer design. She also pioneered Very Large-Scale Integration and the Metal Oxide Semiconductor Implementation Service.

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