Black History Month: Roy Clay

Roy Clay

(c. 1930 – Currently Living)

16th - Roy Clay


[su_note note_color=”#40cd11″ radius=”5″]Noteworthy Accomplishments & Historical Facts [su_list icon_color=”#191f17″]
  • Black Godfather of the Silicon Valley
  • A key figure in the development of the Silicon Valley
  • Helped develop Hewlett-Packard’s first computers
  • He advised Venture Capitalists to fund Intel, Compaq, and Tandem Computers making them what they are today
  • Invented the first electronic equipment safety testing device to be certified by Underwriters Lab oratory (UL)
  • The first Black Councilman and Vice Mayor of Palo Alto, CA (1973)
  • Roy Clay became the first African-American member of the Olympic Club (1988)
  • Roy Clay founded the Virginia Clay / Unity Care Annual Golf Classic to honor his wife’s memory and to promote success for young minorities (1999)
  • Roy Clay was inducted into the Silicon Valley Engineering Council’s Hall of Fame (2003)

Inspired to Be Great at a Young Age

Roy L. Clay Sr. was born in Kinloch, Missouri – the oldest African-American community incorporated in Missouri. He lived in a home with no indoor plumbing and a neighborhood with no streetlights and few paved roads. This was a time when cops would stop and pickup Black boys like Roy, for venturing outside of Kinloch after dark. Also, a time when blacks were not free to attend integrated schools, and most colleges still barred their doors to people of color.

In elementary school, he displayed an early proficiency and love for mathematics. He was inspired by his first teacher, she was really motivating, and by the time he left school, he was feeling like he could learn to do anything! 

Persistence Gets the Job Done

In 1947, he was admitted to St. Louis University – he was one of the first Blacks to attend the school. There he learned to program computer code while earning his degree in mathematics, because back then there were no computer science degree programs . After receiving a degree in Mathematics from St. Louis University in 1951, Roy Clay’s first job was as a school teacher. Back then, teaching school was about the best job that African-Americans could reasonably hope to find in the U.S., and more than one of his early attempts to find work in the technology industry bluntly ended with “Sorry, Mr. Clay, we have no jobs for professional Negroes.” 

Despite the challenges of the time, in 1956 Roy eventually landed work as a programmer of IBM and Burroughs computers in the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation (now McDonnell Douglass). In 1958, he moved to the Bay Area in California where he began working as the lead programmer at Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (now known as awrence Livermore National Laboratory). While he was there he created a computer simulation program that showed how particles of radiation would be dispersed through the atmosphere after an atomic explosion. This program is what helped Roy build the reputation which helped him land the job at Hewlett-Packard (HP).

Making His Mark in the Silicon Valley

After leaving Lawrence Livermore Labs in 1962, Roy worked as a software engineer for Control Data Corporation, the third largest mainframe computer manufacturer at the time (behind IBM and Sperry Rand), where he developed software languages for Control Data computers.

In 1965, he was recruited by David Packard (co-Founder of HP) to set up HP’s computer development business. David sought Roy out based on his reputation and work he did back at Lawrence Livermore Lab. David was a pioneer in promoting diversity, as he had helped implement affirmative action programs in the U.S. military as deputy secretary of defense.

“When Packard returned to HP, he began to aggressively recruit from historically black colleges and universities, according to Templeton’s book, “Our Roots Run Deep, The Black Experience in California 1950-2000,” Vol. 3. Roy expanded on that policy, hiring five black engineers and recruiting from Morehouse College. He became known as the “godfather of black Silicon Valley” for opening doors to many African-Americans in the industry, according to Templeton.”

Though HP was into diversifying their staff, society was not as welcoming of blacks as HP. There were still restaurants where Clay could not dine and places where he could not live. He lived in the only San Jose apartment building that accepted blacks, along with almost every other African-American engineer in the county.

Roy was hired as the software development manager and lead developer for the HP 2116A minicomputer, which was HP’s first marketed computer and only the second 16-bit computer (after the Honeywell DDP-116) to hit the market overall. Not only did he lead the team that created the hardware, but he, himself, wrote the software for the 2116A. “While there, Roy Clay worked tirelessly to make the software ready for the market as soon as the hardware, which defied the industry convention of the time. Roy Clay also went on to become the first director of the HP Research and Development Computer Group, a relentless promoter for the development of Hewlett-Packard’s computer division, and the interim General Manager of HP’s computer division following the departure of Tom Perkins (who left to co-found the now legendary venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers). In addition, as HP’s most senior African-American at the time, Roy Clay also helped a number of other minorities launch successful careers in the tech industry” (ROD-L, Management). 

In 1971, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers then employed Roy Clay as its consultant for prospective investments in computer technology start-ups, three of which eventually reached a combined valuation of $135 billion dollars: Tandem Computers ($3B), Compaq ($22B), and Intel ($110B).

After Taking HP to the Next Level

In 1977, Roy left HP to start his own company, ROD-L Electronics. “There he invented the first electronic equipment safety testing device to be certified by Underwriters Laboratory (UL). 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. His ROD-L tester was placed at the end of each company’s computer production line” (SF Bayview). 

Companies such as HP and GE use such products to assess the electrical-safety and integrity of everything from computers to dishwashers to pacemakers.

Helping Other Minorities Succeed

Fueled by a Richard Nixon-era policy proposal of “benign neglect,” which aimed to withhold resources from urban Black neighborhoods, he responded by helping to organize networking events for Black technology workers. His philosophy was, “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.” To this day, he continues to lend his expertise and connections to the next generation of Black leaders.

In 1003, Roy Clay was inducted into the Silicon Valley Engineering Council’s Hall of fame.



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