Prof. Emerita Lynn Conway to be inducted into National Inventors Hall of Fame

She is recognized for her role in transforming the global microelectronics industry with the invention of VLSI, or Very Large-Scale Integration.
Lynn Conway
Prof. Emerita Lynn Conway

Prof. Emerita Lynn Conway has been named as one of sixteen innovation pioneers to be inducted into the 50th class of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.  The inductees were announced on stage at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas on January 6. 

In partnership with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the National Inventors Hall of Fame will honor the inductees at an event in Washington DC on Oct. 26.

Conway is recognized with this honor for her work with collaborator Carver Mead in transforming the global microelectronics industry with the invention of VLSI, or Very Large-Scale Integration. This revolutionary technology, detailed in their groundbreaking textbook “Introduction to VLSI Systems,” allowed small teams of individuals to design powerful chips.

Born in Mount Vernon, New York, Conway earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Columbia University in 1962 and 1963. She then joined IBM Research, where she made foundational contributions to computer architecture, including multiple-out-of-order dynamic instruction scheduling – an innovation key to architecture designs for ultra-high-performance computers.

Into the 1970s, a cumbersome, segmented system hampered digital design engineers keen to create higher-performance devices. Semiconductor firms, circuit designers, and system architects largely worked apart from one another, and computer processor manufacturers applied individual design and fabrication methods. It was against this backdrop that Caltech professor Mead, recognized for simplifying custom circuit designs for LSI processors, and Conway, then a Xerox PARC computer system architect and creator of scalable VLSI design rules, worked to streamline VLSI prototyping techniques and design methodology.

Conway and Mead’s groundbreaking textbook, “Introduction to VLSI Systems,” became the chip designer’s handbook, freeing chip design from the confines of commercial chip fabricators. In1978, Conway taught the first VLSI course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. By 1983, nearly 120 schools taught the approach. At the time, the idea that design could be handled using a high-level system architecture approach – where designers understood basic concepts but didn’t have to become experts in circuitry fabrication – was radical. Today, it is fundamental. As of 2021, silicon foundries were a $105 billion strategic global industry.

In an interview with the National Inventors Hall of Fame, Conway spoke about her motivation, saying that as a child, she spent a lot of her time in libraries: “I’ve been impacted in very deep ways by the stories of the adventures of people who’ve done cool things – adventures with technology, inventors, designers, discoverers.” 

Conway joined the University of Michigan in 1985, with a research focus on visual communications and control. As an associate dean in the College of Engineering, she contributed to numerous research and instructional initiatives, including the planning of the Media Union, and retired from the university in 1998.

The following year, as computer historians began uncovering her role in DIS development, she decided to share her transgender history. Since then, Conway has worked to protect and expand the rights of transgender people and to illuminate and normalize gender variance and gender transition processes through her widely accessed website.

Conway, who lives in rural Michigan with her engineer husband, Charles Rogers, is a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

Among other accolades, she is the recipient of the Franklin Institute John Price Wetherill Medal, the University of Pennsylvania Harold Pender Award, the Secretary of Defense Meritorious Achievement Award, the Society of Women Engineers National Achievement Award, Electronic Design magazine’s Hall of Fame, the Computer Pioneer Award of the IEEE Computer Society, the Computer History Museum Fellow Award, and the James Clerk Maxwell Medal of the IEEE and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Conway has received honorary degrees from Trinity College, Illinois Institute of Technology, University of Victoria, and the University of Michigan.