Profile: Lynn Conway--Completing the Circuit; December 2000; Scientific American Magazine; by Paul Wallich; 4 Page(s)
ANN ARBOR, MICH.-The conversation at Lynn Conway's kitchen table moves seamlessly from computer architecture to Indian transgender cults, from the practical anthropology of technical revolutions to the risks of motorbike racing. (A hand injury two years ago sidelined Conway, but her partner, Charlie, still competes in the over-40 category.) A 14-pound brindled tomcat climbs across the counter, the table, Conway and me as we talk.
More than 30 years ago, when she was in her late 20s, Conway worked on a secret supercomputer project at IBM. She invented a way for a single central processing unit, or CPU, to perform multiple operations simultaneously without interfering with itself-unique for computers of its time. In her late 30s and early 40s, at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, she helped to develop the techniques for integrated-circuit design that touched off the VLSI (very large scale integration) explosion of the 1980s, a design and manufacturing approach that boosted the number of transistors on a chip from thousands to millions. The chips that brought Sun Microsystems, Silicon Graphics and other companies to prominence saw first silicon under her tutelage. By the end of that decade, computer architects used VLSI to design computers with multiple-issue and out-of-order execution capabilities like those Conway had conceived.