Computer Genius Roy L. Clay Sr. Started Life in Ferguson, Mo.


By Doris I. Mangrum


In 1943, a 14 year-old African American male was strolling along the streets of Ferguson, Missouri when the police asked him why he was walking there – in his own town. The officers told him that they didn’t want to see him there again or there could be trouble.

Fast forward to 2015, Ferguson finds itself eerily at the epicenter of the conversation around racial profiling. Sadly, the 1943 scenario is repeating itself time and time again on the streets of Ferguson and beyond.


However, there is a little known story that has evolved around that teenager who was stopped in Ferguson.


When one hears the roll call of Silicon Valley founders, the names of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Bill Hewlett and David Packard come to mind. Fewer people know the name of Roy L. Clay Sr., the teen who was told he could get into trouble on the streets of Ferguson and who later went on to become the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard.


Born in 1929 in Ferguson, Clay attended a segregated school. A good student, he was granted an academic scholarship to attend St. Louis University, where he received a bachelor degree in Mathematics.


Clay learned how to program computer code in 1956. By 1958, he was a computer programmer at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.


In 1965, he became a co-founder of Hewlett-Packard Computer Company. He was responsible for establishing software development, directing research and development of all computer products and served as General Manager of the Computer Division.


2116A was the name of the computer he and his colleagues designed in 1965. He was a part of the team that reduced the size of the computer.


When Clay left Hewlett-Packard, he was the highest-ranking African-American at the company. In 1977, he started his own company, Rod-L Electronics. Partnering with HP, IBM, AT&T and other companies, Clay’s company developed the Rod-L sticker or the Dielectric Withstand safety test, also known as the Hipot tester to ensure that computers wouldn’t shock or cause a fire.


He was a founder of Silicon Valley in 1971, and in 1973 he became the first African –American to serve on the city council and as Vice Mayor in Palo Alto.

In 2003, he was selected to enter the Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame. Clay was recently recognized for his accomplishments by Congresswoman Barbara Lee,


Roy Clay’s passion is deeply rooted in helping youth discover the power of learning. He enjoys investing his time and expertise in sharing the importance of education, integrity, and commitment. Mr. Clay believes that community responsibility and concern about improving the lives of others is paramount to shifting the current paradigm.


While we cannot impose solutions on Ferguson, New York, Sanford or any other city hard hit by the challenges of our times. We must understand that unless we come together for fundamental change, we must be prepared for the downhill spiral that will impact the quality of all lives, when society fails to rally support for effective community transformation that includes valuing the lives of all.


The records of African American history and the story of Silicon Valley must include the story of Roy L. Clay, Sr. co-founder of Hewlett-Packard and Silicon Valley, who as a boy was told to stay off the streets of Ferguson, Mo.



Doris I. Mangrum is a social justice advocate, separation and reunification author, speaker, award-winning filmmaker, editorial columnist, TV talk show host and producer.


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