Before Bill Gates, There Was Roy L. Clay Sr.

The black Silicon Valley pioneer helped Hewlett-Packard design and build its first computers.

Clay set up HP’s computer-development business in an atmosphere conducive to creativity. His workers began the day by playing golf together at daybreak and filtered into HP around 9 a.m. They left when their work was done.

Bill Hewlett, HP’s other founder, was not pleased. “That’s not the HP way,” Hewlett told Clay. HP employees were to arrive at 7:45 a.m., take coffee between 9:35 and 9:45, begin a one-hour lunch break at 11:45, take a second 10-minute coffee break at 2:35 and leave at 4:30 p.m.

Hewlett’s resistance softened when Clay’s team was still toiling away at 10 p.m. on a Saturday when Hewlett called for help resuscitating his computer.

That computer Clay and colleagues designed in 1965 was named 2116A, and it was about the size of a typewriter. (By contrast, the computer in the radiation lab was the size of 100 refrigerators standing side by side, housed in an air-conditioned room because it wilted in heat or humidity.) In addition to shrinking the size of the computer, they improved its reliability.

By the time he left HP, he was the highest-ranking African American at the company. He started his own company, Rod-L Electronics, in 1977. His late wife, Virginia, came up with the name from their middle son’s first and middle names, Rodney Lewis, because she liked its high-tech sound.

In the mid-1970s, Clay discovered that Underwriters Laboratories was going to require an electrical safety test on electrical products to ensure that they wouldn’t shock or cause a fire. He reached out to HP, IBM, AT&T and Xerox. Each became his business partner.

At the end of each of those companies’ production line is the automated dielectric withstand tester that Clay developed. For years, computers carried a Rod-L sticker. “If it didn’t have Rod-L on that rear panel, it meant it was not a real IBM computer,” Clay said.

In 1973 Clay became the first African American to serve as councilman for the city of Palo Alto. Galvanized by a Nixon-era policy proposal of “benign neglect,” which aimed to withhold resources from urban neighborhoods, he helped organize networking events for black technology workers. The 2003 Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame inductee continues to lend his expertise and connections to the next generation of African-American leaders. 

“The way to get through [benign neglect] is to get African Americans in positions to do things so we can get others in positions to do things,” Clay says.

Diedtra Henderson is a freelance science and technology writer whose most recent article for The Root was about the controversy surrounding prostate-cancer tests for men.