like building bridges,” she says. “People can say the design stinks,
your ideas aren’t any good. But if the bridge stands, it stands.
What works, works.”
“People can look at
me and say what they want,” she continues. “They’ll judge me and
they’ll judge people who are like me, and they can have their weird
theories. They can say where I’m going to go when I die. But take a
look at my life and tell me if the bridge
Let me be the one to tell you:
It does. Against all odds, the bridge
It’s a work in progress, this
bridge she’s building. But half-done, it’s already a monument to the
invincibility and optimism of the human spirit. For Lynn Conway — an
attractive middle-aged woman recently retired from an illustrious
career in engineering and academia, a technology pioneer whose
contributions helped reshape the ways computers are conceptualized
and designed — lived until two years ago with a secret she was too
terrified to share.
Lynn Conway was
born a boy.
The first son of middle-class
parents in Mount Vernon, N.Y., Conway was born Robert Sanders (a
pseudonym she has adopted to protect her family). His parents, a
schoolteacher and a chemical engineer, noticed signs early on that
Robert was not a normal male child — signs they worked hard to
punish and suppress. Transsexualism was more than a taboo subject in
the 1940s; it was unheard of, unthinkable.
Robert’s childhood was marred by his
growing recognition that something was terribly wrong. At 17, he
enrolled at MIT, where he first began to present as a girl,
injecting estrogen to achieve the physical changes he longed
It was the beginning of a
decadelong roller coaster ride, a life trajectory that reflected
Robert’s efforts — and inability — to play the role biology had
assigned him. He dropped out of MIT, worked menial jobs, and then
earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering at
Columbia. During those years, he married a young woman who knew
nothing of his internal anguish, and by 1966, he was the father of
performance at Columbia brought a job offer at IBM, where he helped
to pioneer supercomputing technologies that would become the
foundation for today’s computing revolution. But his professional
success didn’t assuage Robert’s personal conflict. Nearly suicidal
by 1967, he contacted Dr. Harry Benjamin, an expert on
transsexualism. By 1968, Robert was preparing for surgery.
Blue to Memorex
It was a decision that cost him his
friends, his relatives, his job at IBM, his family — in short, the
only life he knew. But, says Conway, there was no choice: “I
wouldn’t have survived another two years in the life I was living,”
By 1971, Lynn Conway had a new
life. She was working in computer architecture at Memorex, where her
contributions drew the attention of engineers at Xerox. In 1973,
they recruited her to work at the company’s new research center at
It was there that Conway
came into her own, as a woman and as an engineer. Her work in VLSI —
very large scale integrated circuits — helped turn computing on its
ear. With Caltech engineering professor Carver Mead, Conway
reconceptualized chip processing. Their textbook became standard
fare at universities all over the world, and their recognition of
the potential of silicon was the precursor to the Pentium chip.
“Everybody said we were crazy, it was bogus, it wouldn’t work,” says
Conway. “But it worked, and when it did, what could they say? They
just went away and hid.”
live was thriving as well. “I had been a very shy, withdrawn,
unhappy person while I was forced to live as a male,” Conway says.
“I was taken seriously in my work at IBM because I came up with
outstanding ideas. But beyond that, I was pretty much
Not so at Xerox Parc. “I was
five years post-op, and I had become such a happy person and so full
of life that I was able to emerge as a research leader,” she says.
“I was reacted to as a very creative, enthusiastic, wildly energetic
gal who got all sorts of creative ideas and who was fun to work
Despite her successes, Conway never considered
disclosing her past. “I was totally in stealth mode,” she says.
She left Xerox Parc in the early 1980s.
“I desperately wanted to find a mate,” she says, “and I knew that
wasn’t the environment where it was going to happen.”
She worked briefly for the Defense
Department, and then accepted a position at the University of
Michigan as a professor of electrical engineering and computer
science, and later, as Associate Dean of Engineering. While there,
she met Charlie, who has been her mate for the past 13 years. And
she continued to build what has been, by any standard, an
Two years ago, it became more extraordinary
A researcher tracking down the
secret history of IBM’s “Project Y” posted a message to a computing
bulletin board. Nobody at the company seemed to know what had
happened to a project that had paved the way for supercomputing. Did
anybody know anything about it?
did. And after decades of silence, she decided to step up and share
what she knew — and to take credit for the incredible work she had
done while living as Robert Sanders. She had reconciled with her
daughters, had been living happily as a woman for more than 30
years. It was time to reclaim at least part of her
“When I made the decision to have
a gender-correction, everybody told me I was terrible, I was going
to end up dead or in an asylum someplace,” she says. “But they were
wrong. I’ve had a great life, I’m very happy, and I’ve managed to do
some productive, important work.”
that engineer talking again: “Take a look at my life and tell me if
the bridge stands,” she says, laughing. “What works,
Part II will appear
Wednesday, December 13.
A teacher and a journalist, Dianne Lynch is the author of
Virtual Ethics. Wired Women appears on alternate Wednesdays.