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Leaders in Innovation

2023 Inductee Lynn Conway: Leading a Revolution in Microelectronics

Each year, the National Inventors Hall of Fame® celebrates a new class of world-changing inventors who have made an enduring impact on the way we live, work, learn and communicate. Our 2023 Inductee class includes visionaries like Lynn Conway, whose stories we are proud to share with the next generation of innovators. Read on to learn about Conway and her work in transforming the global microelectronics industry.

Seeking Adventure

Conway has always liked adventure stories. Spending lots of time in libraries while growing up in White Plains, New York, she found herself drawn to stories of adventurous inventors, explorers, designers and discoverers. This passion led Conway to keep herself open to trying new things, and seeking opportunities to take risks, learn and grow.

“I've always wanted to learn exciting new things and then, starting as beginner, get involved in those adventurous activities,” she explained in an interview with the National Inventors Hall of Fame. “An important lesson I’ve also learned: if you want to have adventures well into the long-term future, don’t just keep having the same old ones over and over.”

Long fascinated by the evolution of technology and its applications, Conway earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering in 1962 and 1963 from Columbia University. She then joined IBM Research, where she made foundational contributions to computer system architecture, including multiple-out-of-order dynamic instruction scheduling.


Creating and Sharing a New Approach

In 1975, while doing research in digital system architecture at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Conway embarked on a new adventure when she began collaborating with Caltech professor (and fellow National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductee) Carver Mead. They took on a challenging, suddenly arising problem: how to cope with the increasing complexity of chip design while the number of transistors per chip doubled every two years as Inductee Gordon Moore had predicted in 1965. The design methods in use in the semiconductor industry were rapidly running out of steam.

Over several years of intense work, they succeeded in massively simplifying the existing methods so that computer system designers outside the semiconductor industry could quickly learn how to do Very Large-Scale Integrated (VLSI) chip design, using new types of Electronic Design Automation (EDA) software tools. Among the simplifications: Conway’s invention of dimensionless, scalable chip design rules that enabled software to cope with Moore’s law, and allow the separation of the activities of chip designers and chip printers (as long as chip designs met the design rules).

Conway and Mead then used the advanced Alto computers at Xerox PARC to rapidly evolve a draft of the seminal textbook “Introduction to VLSI Systems” that explained the new methods in detail. It became the chip designer’s guidebook, enabling small teams of individuals to design powerful chips.

In 1978, Conway served as visiting associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, teaching a now-famous VLSI design course based on the draft of the Mead–Conway text. The course pioneered the immersive teaching of the new methods, validated the methods and the textbook, and established the syllabus and instructor's guidebook used in later courses worldwide.

Back at PARC in 1979, Conway then invented and massively demonstrated an internet-based e-commerce infrastructure for rapid chip prototyping, thereby spawning the "fabless-design + silicon-foundry" paradigm of modern VLSI chip design and semiconductor manufacturing.

By 1982-83, nearly 120 universities were teaching Mead-Conway VLSI design courses, using a “silicon foundry” to “print” resulting student chip design projects. This then-radical approach now is considered fundamental. By 2022, silicon foundries (such as TSMC in Taiwan) had become a $77.1 billion-per-year industry, supplying the chips annually embedded into almost all the world’s commercial and industrial products.

In 1985, Conway joined the faculty of the University of Michigan, where she is now professor of electrical engineering and computer science, emerita. She holds five U.S. patents and is an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering. Among her many honors, she has received the Franklin Institute’s John Price Wetherill Medal, the National Achievement Award of the Society of Women Engineers, the Secretary of Defense Meritorious Civilian Service Medal, the James Clerk Maxwell Medal of the IEEE and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, IBM Corp.’s Lifetime Achievement Award and four honorary doctorates.

Having completed gender transition in 1968, Conway is a strong advocate for transgender rights and for the recognition of women’s innovations in science, engineering and technology. She is inspired by the many emerging “hidden histories” of women’s past triumphs, and by the ever-increasing participation of previously excluded minorities in highly innovative work in STEM. "Since I didn't #LookLikeanEngineer, few people in the ‘70s and ‘80s caught on to what I was really doing back then," says Conway. “It’s a thrill to have lived long enough to see my innovations finally recognized.”


Meet More Inspiring 2023 Inductees

To learn more about the exceptional creators and innovators who make up our latest class of Inductees, we invite you to visit our website.

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