Over 70 years ago, a black student graduated from St Louis University with a bachelor of science degree in Mathematics.
That, in itself, was an accomplishment at the time. But it marked the start of the career of a Silicon Valley pioneer named Roy L. Clay Sr.
Clay would go on to work at Hewlett Packard and, in the years since, has been dubbed the ‘Godfather of Silicon Valley’.
Over half a century, Roy Clay has played a part in the development of the technology industry and paved the way for African-American engineers in all manner of disciplines.
Born to a large family (he was one of 9) in the small town of Kinloch, just outside St. Louis, Clay had to deal with the realities of racism in the rural US.
He attended a segregated school and says one of his most vivid memories is cutting across a white neighbour’s lawn to get to church faster. He was nine years old and the neighbour came out, pointed a gun at him and said if he ever stepped on his property again, he’d be killed.
Despite the odds stacked against him, Clay’s passion and aptitude for maths led him to the university, where he was one of the first black men to attend.
From there, he moved to a physics research lab at the University of California at Berkeley, operated by the US Department of Energy.
He was tasked with writing software demonstrating how radiation particles would spread after nuclear explosions. The work got him notcied by Dave Packard, one of the founders of Hewlett-Packard, who brought Clay to the company in 1965 to lead a new computer division.
At the time, HP made semiconducters.
While there, Clay led the development of the HP 2116A minicomputer, a typewriter-sized machine and only the second 16-bit computer ever created.
According to a profile of Clay – now aged 93 – on Hewlett-Packard’s website, the machine provided ‘a strong entry into the subsequent data-processing arena and placed HP in the annals of computing history.’
While Clay went on to succeed at HP (where he stayed until 1971 to launch his own business) it was his community outreach that leaves as much of a legacy as his engineering work.
Clay worked to establish programs to help African-Americans break into the technology industry and also served as the first black man on the Palo Alto City Council in 1973.
‘To make integration work, people who are involved in the recruitment have to go to the groups they’re recruiting from,’ he told Forbes back in 2015.
After leaving Hewlett-Packard, Clay formed his own company – Rod-L Electronics – which manufactuered electrical safety test equipment.
But he continued to work to make sure black engineers were accepted and represented in the tech industry.
‘My sole interest is to work with young black males to encourage them to learn how to do things well,’ he told SFGate.
In 2022, Clay published a book on his story, with the apt title of ‘Unstoppable: The Unlikely Story of a Silicon Valley Godfather’.
Black History Month
October marks Black History Month, which reflects on the achievements, cultures and contributions of Black people in the UK and across the globe, as well as educating others about the diverse history of those from African and Caribbean descent.
For more information about the events and celebrations that are taking place this year, visit the official Black History Month website.
Get your need-to-know
latest news, feel-good stories, analysis and more
Credit: Source link