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


To today's iPad generation, accustomed to lightweight portable computing power, the first computer Roy L. Clay Sr. helped build may seem like a relic.


When Clay, now 82, learned how to program computer code in 1956, Bill Gates was in diapers. Universities didn't have computer science programs. And a computer stable enough to run for a full day without failing was the holy grail.

David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard Co., brought Clay on board in 1965 to build that computer.

Packard heard about Clay from a friend who had worked on the Manhattan Project, the United States' answer to Germany's nuclear-development program during World War II. In 1958 Clay was a computer programmer at what is now Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, turning the ethereal into something tangible: He wrote software that showed how particles of radiation would spread through the atmosphere after an atomic explosion.

What Packard had in mind were computers that would work with other instrumentation that HP built. He knew nothing about software.

"He trusted that to me," Clay said.

Clay was born in Kinloch, the oldest African-American community incorporated in Missouri. He lived in a home with no indoor plumbing, a neighborhood with no streetlights, in an area with a tradition of police picking up black boys like Clay if they wandered outside of Kinloch after dark.


"Everybody cared," Clay said of his hometown. 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, a Saint Louis University graduate who majored in mathematics, continued to seize every opportunity that came his way. Through hard work, intellect and a bit of luck, not only would he eventually became CEO of his own company, but he would advise a venture capital superstar whose investments gave life to Silicon Valley start-ups, beginning with Tandem 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.