An overdue apology

The history of computing has its shameful parts. For example, you’ve probably read about how Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, was persecuted, lost his job and was ultimately driven to suicide for being gay. But you might not know about Lynn Conway, a hugely significant figure in modern computing who’s life was destroyed by IBM purely because she was trans.

IBM has now apologised some 52 years later.

Jeremy Alicandri, writing for Forbes:

when IBM’s Corporate Medical Director learned of her plans in 1968, he alerted CEO Thomas J. Watson, Jr., who fired Conway to avoid the public embarrassment of employing a transwoman.

The termination turned Conway’s life upside down. The loss of income and looming inability to support her family shattered their plans for a quiet divorce with visitation rights. To worsen matters, California’s Social Services threatened her with a restraining order if she ever attempted to see her children.

Imagine having your life destroyed because the CEO was embarrassed to have you working for him. Sadly those attitudes, while rarer, still exist today.

It’s a sad irony that Conway’s work helped lead to the development of the very devices that bigots use to abuse other trans people today. Whatever you’re reading this on, Conway was part of the path that led to its creation.

“. . . Among [Conway’s] many foundational contributions to computer architecture are the scalable digital design rules she invented for srilicon chip design and the ARPANET e-commerce infrastructure she developed for rapid chip prototyping – thereby launching a paradigmatic revolution in microchip design and manufacturing . . .,” explains John L. Anderson, President of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE).

The article is well worth a read. Conway’s story is both horrific and inspiring.