Roy Clay Sr., The Godfather of Silicon Valley
Black History Month is a celebration. The month is dedicated to the abilities and accomplishments of African-Americans. It also speaks to the determination of black people to be part of American greatness even in the face of racism.
The African-American Cyber Report is about technology and black people. We cannot put the words African-American and technology together without speaking the name Roy Clay Sr.
Roy Clay Sr. is known as the Godfather of Silicon Valley. Mr.Clay was at the cutting edge of computing and technology before Microsoft and Apple were ever dreamed of.
Born in Kinloch, Missouri Clay lived in a home with no indoor plumbing, his neighborhood had no streetlights and black boys faced police harassment if found outside the small town after dark.
Clay was educated in the Ferguson, MO. school district. The same community where Michael Brown was killed by a police officer. Clay himself had unfortunate run ins with the police. But unlike many other young black boys before the civil rights era Clay was inspired rather than discouraged.
Speaking of his hometown Clay said; “Everybody cared.” Clay said his first teacher “inspired me to do well. By the time I left that little school, I thought I could learn to do anything.”
Clay went on to be the one of the first black men to attend Saint Louis University in 1946 when there was no such thing as computer science. He graduated in 1951 with a Bachelors of Science in Mathematics.
It was shortly after his graduation in 1951 that he was first introduced to computers. In those days computers often took up entire buildings, had to have carefully controlled environments and rarely ran long before crashing. Today’s technology was nothing more than science fiction.
In 1958, Clay found himself working as a computer programmer at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, now known as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. His job was writing software that demonstrated how particles of radiation would spread through the atmosphere after an atomic explosion.
Clay was present at the birth of the technology industry in the U.S. Today the buzz word is code writing. Bot Clay was writing code even before the emergence of the civil rights era. In 1963 he was employed by Control Data Corporation working on a computer language known as Fortran. For us laymen Fortran is a general-purpose, imperative programming language that is especially suited to numeric computation and scientific computing.
Word of Clay’s work got back to David Packard co-founder of Hewlett-Packard and in 1965 he recruited Clay to set up HP’s computer development business. Packard’s idea was to build computers that worked with other HP instrumentation products. Clay was vital to this effort because Packard knew almost nothing about software.
“He trusted that to me,” Clay said.
Clay led the team that brought HP’s computer, the 2116A, to market in 1966. He also wrote the software for the 2116A as well. That computer Clay and his colleagues designed was about the size of a typewriter. It not only reduced the size of the computer but improved its reliability.
But Clay was unconventional and his practices did not always sit well with the other half of HP, Bill Hewlett. He built an atmosphere around HP’s computer-development business that inspired creativity. His staff would start the day by playing golf at sunrise and would often not get to the office before 9:00 am.
Hewlett, not pleased with Clay’s methods, said to Clay, “That’s not the HP way.” That attitude changed when Hewlett discovered Clay’s team still working away at 10 p.m. on a Saturday when he called for help with his computer.
Clay was a vital piece to the rise of HP to technology prominence. He established the software development facility, managed the computer division and guided the companies emergence as an HP Computer company. Clay became the highest-ranking African American at HP.
The computer industry began to emerge and its home was the northern California region that became know as the Silicon Valley. Roy Clay Sr., because of his work, became known as the Godfather of Silicone Valley. His work in the computer field caused an industry to grow. When industry grows so do the investments in that industry. Clay was the guiding hand behind the technology investments made by capital investor group Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers . The group invested in Tandem Computers, Compaq Computers and Intel Corporation. Today Intel corporation is the leading maker of computer chips for just about every computing device you can buy. In 2013 Intel reported over $52.7 billion in revenue.
In the mid-1970’s, Clay discovered that Underwriters Laboratories was going to require a safety test on electrical products to ensure that they wouldn’t shock or cause a fire. Clay was an entrepreneur and he formed his own company, Rod-L Electronics. Clay could very well be one of Silicon Valley’s first technology start ups.
At Rod-L he invented the first electronic equipment safety testing device to be certified by Underwriters Laboratory (UL). Clay soon partnered with his former employer HP as well as IBM, AT&T and Xerox. His ROD-L tester was soon found on each company’s computer production line. The ROD-L sticker was found on these companies computer products as evidence that they were certified by UL. According to Clay, “If it didn’t have Rod-L on that rear panel, it meant it was not a real IBM computer.” The Rod-L tester is still the standard today.
Clay also focused his intellect and leadership abilities on local politics by serving as the first African-American on the Palo Alto, California City Council in 1973. Palo Alto, in the heart of the Silicon Valley, is home to Stanford University as well as Hewlett-Packard. He also served as the city’s vice-mayor.
Clay was motivated to action by the Nixon administration policy proposal of “benign neglect.” This policy was aimed at urban African-American communities and designed to withhold resources from these neighborhoods. Clay’s response was to organize networking events for Black technology workers. He believed, “The way to get through “benign neglect ‘was to get African-Americans in positions to do things so we can get others in positions to do things.”
But with so much accomplished in his life Clay has to be introspective. Clay grew up in the community of Kinloch, Missouri next door to Ferguson where Micheal Brown was killed by a police officer. Clay had his own incident with police when he was young and was told by the police; ” “Nigger, don’t let me catch you again in Ferguson.” Clay’s mother told him after the incident, “You will experience racism for the rest of your life, but don’t ever let that be a reason why you don’t succeed.”
Clay’s mother was prophetic and he took it to heart. Clay’s first attempt to find employment after college was at McDonnell Aircraft. Not knowing he was a black man Clay was invited to interview for a position with the company. Once they got a look at him he was told “Mr. Clay, we are very sorry but we have no jobs for professional Negros.” Clay would not be defeated and five years later he was hired for the job.
In 2003 he was inducted into the Silicon Valley Engineering Council’s Hall of Fame. Mr. Clay was honored for his pioneering professional accomplishments alongside his former employers Bill Hewlett and David Packard of HP and Robert Noyce the co-founder of Intel.
Today Roy Clay Sr. still lives in Palo Alto and is CEO of Rod-L Electronics.
Now you know.