Moments in History: Roy Clay Sr.

Known as the Godfather of Silicon Valley, Roy Clay Sr. was not only one of the first pioneers in the world of computer software during the late ’50s but a pioneer for African Americans breaking into the tech field. Whilst future techies such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were just toddlers, Roy was developing computer software.

Born in Kinloch, Missouri in 1929, Clay grew up in the Jim Crow days of the South in a home with no indoor plumbing. A good student, he was the first African American to graduate from St. Louis University in 1951 when there was no such subject as computer science. Graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics, he struggled to find a job. 

One of his first job interviews upon graduating was with McDonnell Aircraft. When he arrived he was told: “Mr. Clay, we are very sorry but we have no jobs for professional Negros.” He soon became interested in computing and in 1956, not to be dissuaded, he landed a job as a computer programmer for that same company.

In 1958 he obtained a job at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in California where he wrote software for the U.S. Department of Energy that demonstrated how particles of radiation would spread after a nuclear explosion. Word of Clay’s work got back to David Packard of the Hewlett-Packard Company in Palo Alto and in 1965 he recruited Clay to set up HP’s computer development business.

Clay was vital to the rise of HP in the world of technology. He wrote the software for the HP 2116A, the first computer to be sold by HP (about the size of a typewriter) and led the team that brought it to market in 1966. He established the HP software development facility, managed the computer division and guided the company’s emergence as a computer company.

In the mid-1970s, Clay discovered that Underwriters Laboratory was going to require a safety test on electrical products to ensure that they wouldn’t shock or cause a fire. Clay then formed his own company in 1977, Rod-L Electronics, to manufacture the electrical-safety test equipment. Rod-L Electronics remains in business in Mountain View where Clay is CEO. For his contributions in the field of computing, Clay was inducted in the Silicon Valley Engineering Council’s Hall of Fame in 2003.

For over 35 years Clay has been involved in serving his community. While at HP, he established programs to help African Americans get into Silicon Valley. At Rod-L, he professed that at one point, they were the largest employer of African American professionals in Silicon Valley. Clay was also involved in local politics, serving as the first African American on the Palo Alto City Council from 1973 to 1979. In 1988, Clay became the first African American member of the Olympic Club and served as club president at one point as well. He has also served as a leader of community organizations that help to improve the lives of many, such as the Mid-Peninsula Boys & Girls Club and JobTrain (then known as OICW).

Article and Photo courtesy of the Palo Alto Historical Association/Guy Miller Archives