One of the first beneficiaries of the Brown v. Board of Education decision was Roy Clay Sr. Soon after the ruling, he got the opportunity to use his degree in mathematics to begin programming a computer for McDonnell Aircraft in 1956. Just five years earlier, he had been rejected because of his race by the same employer.Roy Clay Sr. was the first employee for Hewlett-Packard in Cupertino in 1965 and it moved him when the buildings were sold last year because the jobs had been moved offshore.
The Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame member has done his part to create jobs in the United States by reaching the 39th year of operation for Rod-L Electronics, a manufacturer of electronic test equipment.
“But there is very little manufacturing left in the United States,” says Clay, featured in the documentary Freedom Riders of the Cutting Edge about the earliest black computer pioneers. He sells his hi pot testers to manufacturers to test electronic equipment for short circuits,as the only Underwriters Laboratory certified supplier.
Clay has insisted on maintaining his manufacturing operation in the United States, because the original intent for starting the company was to create jobs for the emerging community of East Palo Alto. In the three decades since, he has hired dozens of workers, some without even high school diplomas, by working with community organizations such as OIC-West in the Belle Haven community of Menlo Park.
Even before starting Rod-L, Clay’s exploits were legendary. In 1951, he was told by McDonnell Aircraft that despite his mathematics degree, “there were no professional jobs for Negroes.” But by 1956, the aircraft maker hired him to operate its first computer.
By 1958, he was chief programmer for the supercomputer at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Livermore and in 1961 became manager of Cobol and Fortran programming for Control Data in Palo Alto.
Hewlett-Packard recruited him in 1965 to be the first manager for computer research and development, where he led the creation of the HP 2116, the company’s first computer.
In Freedom Riders, Clay recalls that David Packard had a choice between buying Digital Equipment for $25 million or starting his own company
Clay succeeded Tom Perkins as acting general manager of computers, but left when he didn’t get the job permanently. As a consultant to the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, he was technical advisor for the investments in companies such as Intel, Tandem and Compaq.
Technology was not his only passion, Clay became the first black elected to Palo Alto City Council and ultimately vice mayor. As a politician, he encourages President Obama to expand his range of advisors, particularly on economic issues such as job creation. He is concerned that communities like East Palo Alto are not being taken into account.
Clay got his sensibility from growing up in an all-black hamlet called Kinloch outside St. Louis. He learned the math skills for software development counting craps in a shine parlor.