Black History: Special Delivery!!
Known as the “Godfather of Silicon Valley”, Roy Clay, Sr. (1929 -) was born in Kinloch, Missouri. He graduated from St. Louis University, majoring in mathematics. One of the first jobs he sought after graduation was at McDonnell Aircraft. His resume did not reveal that he was black. He was called for an interview. When he arrived, he was told that there were no jobs for “professional negroes”.
He learned to do computer coding in 1956. Bill Gates was just a baby. There were no college level computer programming or computer science classes. At that time, computers were highly unstable and most could not even be counted on to function for a full day without failing. Clay joined Hewlett-Packard Computers (HP) in 1965 to help build its first computer by its co-founder David Packard. Clay’s professional profile had garnered his attention due to his work on the Manhattan Project.
The Manhattan Project was a U.S. government project established to help the U.S. develop its nuclear infrastructure. At the time, the U.S. was very concerned about the advancements in developing that Germany was making during World War II. Clay worked with the Manhattan Project and wrote software that demonstrated how particles of radiation would disperse into the atmosphere after an atomic explosion.
When Clay joined, Hewlett Packard, they did not know anything about “software”. They were simply looking for ways computers could work with the other instrumentation that HP had built. Clay launched HP’s computer development business. He provided a creative environment, in which staff could successfully innovate. His staff started their day playing golf together and then arrived at work around 9am. They would leave when their work was done. Clay was brought to HP by, one of its cofounders, Dave Packard. However, HP’s other co-founder, Bill Hewlett, was not happy with Clay’s unconventional leadership style. Clay was told that staff were expected to arrive at work by 7:45am and adhere to a very prescribed schedule. Bill Hewlett’s attitude towards Clay and his team softened when, he had a problem with his computer late one night. Clay’s team was still at work and was able to resolve Hewlett’s computer issue.
The computer designed by Roy Clay and his team in 1965 was known as the 2116A. It was the size of a typewriter. Other computers of the day were often very large and took up entire rooms. They also had to be housed in climate controlled rooms to avoid heat and humidity. Clay and his team were not only able to shrink the size of computers, they were also able to improve their stability and reliability. When he finally left HP, Clay was the highest ranking African American employee there.
He launched his own company, Rod-L Electronics in 1977. Through Rod-L Electronics, Clay collaborated with HP, IBM, AT&T, and Xerox in the 1970’s to develop testing technology for Underwriters Laboratories (UL). UL was in need of assistance to conduct safety testing on electrical products to ensure that would not cause shock or fires. Clay developed an automated dielectric withstand tester that each of the companies used on their production line to conduct safety testing.
Clay would also become active in local politics. He became the first African American to serve as a councilman for the city of Palo Alto, CA in 1973. He was very concerned about the resources that were being withheld from urban neighborhoods during the Nixon Era. He also organized opportunities for African American technology workers to connect and network. Clay was a 2003 inductee into the Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame.
In 2014, at the age of 85, Clay reflected on his encounters with Ferguson police in Missouri. He shared how he himself, had come close to being, “Michael Brown”. Michael Brown was an unarmed black man who was shot by a Ferguson Officer. Clay shared that as a young man, we would walk to Ferguson, Missouri and go door to door seeking work. He would offer to pull weeds, rake, or mow lawns. One particular day he had purchased a soda. He was not allowed to drink the soda in the store. So he went outside and sat on the curb. The Ferguson police stopped him and asked what he was doing. He was then handcuffed and put into the police car and taken to the edge of his home town and told not to return to Ferguson. He was relieved that he was unharmed but angered by how he was treated. Of the recent incidents of shooting of black men across the U.S. Clay remarked:
“I implore people looking at young men like Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin or Oscar Grant on the street or — as a candidate for cutting edge jobs or entrepreneurship — to see them as a potential Roy Clay.”
Located in Mountain View, CA, Rod-L Electronics currently designs and manufactures test equipment to assist in identifying potential hazards and defects in electrical components and products.