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African American Leaders in Tech: Part 2

Godfather of Silicon Valley, Roy Clay Sr.

2/14/2020 11:02:24 AM

A circuit board.

Minnesota IT Services (MNIT) is celebrating Black History Month by honoring notable African American figures in technology. Every week, we will share an individual who serves as an inspiration for our work as technologists in government services.

This week, we dive into the technology sector and one of the pioneering figures of the computer era. Roy Clay Sr. was instrumental in both the development of the personal computer, and the development of Silicon Valley. As a pioneer throughout his career, Clay created opportunities for other African Americans in technology, bringing to life his mother’s advice for himself and many others, “You will experience racism for the rest of your life, but don’t you ever let that be a reason why you don’t succeed.”

We are inspired by the dedication that Clay had to create opportunities for those around him, and by the transformational technology that he developed along the way.

About Roy Clay Sr.

Roy Clay Sr. was born in Missouri, and raised in the Ferguson, Missouri school system while it was still under segregation. He was a believer in education and reflected on his schooling in Ferguson and the inspiration he received from his teachers.

“My first teacher inspired me to do well. By the time I left that little school, I thought I could learn to do anything.”

– Roy Clay Sr.

He was among the first African Americans to attend St. Louis University, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics in 1946. He began computer programming in 1956 and worked for the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, where he wrote software that explained how radiation particles spread in the atmosphere after an atomic event. While at Lawrence, Clay made an impression on David Packard, the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard Co (HP). After a rigorous interview process, Packard hired Clay to be instrumental in the development of an ambitious project – taking the room-sized computers of the day and making them available for personal use. Clay fostered a creative work environment with his staff – they would play golf together in the morning before coming into the office, and leave the office once their work was completed.

Lifetime of Contributions

While at HP and afterwards, Clay contributed significantly to the modern computing world.

  • 1966 – Clay was the software development manager and lead developer for the HP2116A, the first computer sold by HP. Clay and his team were able to improve the reliability and size of computing. The HP2116A was only the second 16-bit computer on the market. While at HP, Clay was the first Director of the HP Research and Development Software and Hardware Group, as well as a founding member of the HP Computer Division.
  • 1971 – At the birth of Silicon Valley, Clay became a consultant who specialized in identifying startups for the venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. The companies that he worked with had an immense impact on the future of technology. He is most known for three specific companies: Tandem Computers, Compaq, and Intel Corporation.
  • 1977 – He left HP as the highest-ranking African American to start his own company, ROD-L Electronics.
  • 1977 – Clay developed the automated Dielectric Withstand (Hipot) Test, which ensures that electrical products don’t shock or start fires. This testing technology, automated in the manufacturing process, was the first of its kind.


Outside of his work in the technology sector, Roy Clay Sr. is just as well known for his contribution to the broader community. Clay was the first African American councilman for Palo Alto in 1973 and the first Vice Mayor for the city in 1976. Outside of his work for the city, Clay also was the first African American member of the Olympic Club and founded the Virginia Clay/Unity Care Annual Gold Club Classic in honor of his late wife.

Clay has worked with many community organizations that encourage, “young minorities to design and build technology projects.” While on the city council, he organized networking events for African Americans in the industry. In 2003, Clay was inducted into the Silicon Valley Hall of Fame.



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