Clarence “Skip” Ellis: The First Black Ph.D. in Computer Science
Dante Jervaise Kirkman, Palo Alto Senior High School, Palo Alto, California
A young talent was born on May 11, 1943 to Mr. and Mrs. R.O. Ellis, an African-American couple residing in the South Side of Chicago. The child’s given name was Clarence Arthur Ellis, and he came to be known by the nickname “Skip” throughout his lifetime. The Ellis home in Chicago was located at 6759 South Indiana Avenue, in the South Side neighborhood of Park Manor, a lower-income, diverse neighborhood. As a teenager, Ellis was a high-achieving student who was active in numerous clubs, activities, and contests at his local public school, Parker High School. He was mentioned in local newspapers numerous times for his involvement in the school’s Key Club, and he was featured in the Chicago Sunday Tribune’s “Voice of Youth” column, where he wrote about avoiding nuclear war. As a senior, he was one of ten students in the greater Chicago area to win a Robert E. Wood scholarship award for college.
In 1958, while he was still in high school, Ellis secured a part-time job as a night-shift security guard to help bring in money for his family. His employer was Dover Corporation, a manufacturing company, where it was his job to guard their large mainframe computers. The computers, which took up several rooms and had over 2400 vacuum tubes, needed to be guarded because they were displayed in picture windows for visitors to see. Computers were a novelty then, because the first commercially successful computer, the UNIVAC, or UNIVersal Automatic Computer, was completed just a few years early in 1951.
As a new employee, Ellis was told to stay away from the computers, but instead he studied over twenty operating manuals on his own initiative. By reading the manuals, he learned how the machines operated, and he was able to get them running again when they malfunctioned. Because of his self-taught skills, the company relied on Ellis to solve problems that arose with its computers. This early and unusual exposure to computers sparked young Ellis’s interest in this field and gave him valuable experience for future work with computers.
In high school, Ellis decided to attend college and major in mathematics. He graduated in 1960 and was awarded a scholarship at Beloit College in Wisconsin, which is located around 100 miles northwest of Chicago. Ellis was one of very few African-American students at Beloit then. Like much of society at the time, not all Beloit students were comfortable with racial integration. For example, one member of the Beloit Class of 1956 resigned from her sorority as an undergraduate because the chapter would not admit a Black student to its membership. The 1956 yearbook shows students at social events in blackface, as minstrels and holding a mock auction. It is unclear whether that atmosphere had changed by the time Ellis matriculated several years later in 1960, but his senior yearbook reflects very few identifiable Black students at the college — the few in a small soccer club are billed as “the forgotten ones” in the caption. These observations are not intended as a criticism of Beloit but rather as evidence of the social constraints on Blacks at the time in society, and the nature of the environment that a Black student was dealing with then. Ellis’ depiction in the yearbook suggests a very limited involvement in student life at majority-white Beloit when compared to his active participation in his Chicago high school community. Clearly then, Ellis was a trailblazer both as an African-American student attending college despite cultural obstacles and as an intellectual who pursued a highly rigorous course of study in math and physics.
At Beloit there was no computer science program (very few colleges had them at that time), but there was a mathematics and a physics department, and Ellis double-majored in these subjects. Nonetheless, he was able to continue his interest in computers while at Beloit. Ellis was involved in setting up the school’s computer laboratory, where he spent much of his time. A computer was donated to Beloit at the beginning of his junior year, and Ellis worked with his chemistry professor to install and run the machine, finding his home in that lab. Ellis expanded his knowledge of computer science by attending an elite summer program for undergraduates at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, funded by the NSF, the National Science Foundation. This program was prestigious and highly selective, as only ten undergraduates from North American universities were chosen to participate each summer. Each student received a stipend that in today’s dollars would equal about $3245.
After graduating from Beloit in 1964, Ellis returned to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for graduate school. First, he received the degree of Master of Science in Mathematics in 1966. Then he entered the Ph.D. program in computer science and received his doctorate degree or Ph.D. in Computer Science. A Ph.D. is a doctorate of philosophy, which is the most advanced research degree available. His dissertation was published in October, 1969, and according to the University of Illinois CS department, his Ph.D. was awarded in 1969. However, based on 1970 class notes, it is possible that his doctorate might have been awarded in 1970 at commencement. In any event, the University recognizes Ellis as the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. in computer science with the 1969 date. This “first” status appears to be commonly accepted and has not been challenged or refuted, and we are not aware of any Black Ph.D. recipients internationally who claim an earlier doctoral award date.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign operated one of the earliest and
most important computer research labs, called “The Digital Computer Laboratory.” Abraham Haskel Taub was the Head of the Lab. Taub had come to Illinois in 1948 to build the ORDVAC (Ordnance Variable Automated Computer), for the federal Ballistics Research Lab at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, and then the ILIAC I (Illinois Automated Computer) for the University’s own usage. The ILLIAC II was operational by 1962 and was in use when Ellis was a graduate student. During his time there, he also worked on the ILLIAC III (which burned in 1968) and the ILLIAC IV. At the time that Ellis came to the Lab as a graduate student, it did not have a degree-granting program in computer science. However, by 1967 the CS department was established and awarded its first Ph.D. and Master’s degrees. By way of context, there were just fourteen computer science departments or programs in the United States before 1966; the first Ph.D. was granted in computer science in 1965.
Ellis wrote his Ph.D. research dissertation in 1969 on the subject of “Probabilistic Languages and Automata.” This means that he was interested in the probabilities of successful results for computer languages. His intention was “to take the first step forward toward developing a quantitative tool for analyzing programming languages and their translators.”1 While the content of his dissertation is beyond the comprehension of a non-expert, what is interesting and accessible are the potential applications of his research that he identifies. These applications resonate today and suggest that Ellis anticipated some characteristics of search engines, as well as of artificial intelligence. For example, he imagines a library information retrieval system that reminds us of a Google search, ranking documents by probability of relevance to the search criteria.
After earning his PhD, Ellis went on to an impressive career in the computer science field. He worked as a researcher and software developer at Bell Telephone Laboratories (his first job in 1970), IBM, Xerox PARC, Micro-electronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC), Los Alamos Scientific Labs Argonne National Lab, the Institute for the Future, and Bull S.A. At MCC he headed the Groupware Research Group, and in his last industry job he was as chief architect of the FlowPath workflow product at Bull S.A. He taught at Stanford University, University of Texas at Austin, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stevens Institute of Technology, Johannes Kepler Institute in Austria, and at National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan through an American Federation of Information Processing Societies (AFIPS) overseas teaching fellowship. At MIT he worked on the ARPANET, a predecessor to the Internet, and at Los Alamos he worked on supercomputers.
Significantly, from 1976 to 1984 he was a research scientist at Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in Palo Alto, California at a seminal period of their research. He was part of the team of sociologists, psychologists and computer scientists who worked on Alto, the world’s first personal computer (PC) and its related interfaces and software. Many of these innovations from the 1970s that Ellis was part of were later widely commercialized, for example in Apple’s Lisa computer and Microsoft’s MS-DOS software. At PARC, Ellis headed the Office Research Group, which developed the first office system to use icons and Ethernet for collaborating at a distance.
In 1992, Ellis was invited to a position at the University of Colorado at Boulder, becoming a full Professor of Computer Science and the Director of its Collaboration Technology Research Group (CRTG). His research there focused on “groupware” and workflow systems to enable people to collaborate using computers. He also conducted research for the NSF about very large scale collaboration (VLSC) systems over the Internet and intranets in the late 1990s.
Ellis published extensively in professional journals and was widely cited by other academics, writing over 100 technical papers along with several books. Ellis participated on numerous committees in the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and other academic and professional bodies, and in 1998 he was named a Fellow of the ACM, a status limited to the top 1% of ACM members. Ellis remained at Boulder for the rest of his career. He made it a priority to work with undergraduates rather than just focusing on his own research. He retired in 2010 and then devoted his time to teaching at Ashesi University in Accra, Ghana. In 2014 he was awarded a Fulbright grant to support his work there.
We hear very little about the contributions of Blacks in the technology sector, such that the Hidden Figures book and movie about Black women at NASA has had a huge impact. Ellis’s contributions are important for both computer science history and African-American history. Also, there are still very few African-American professors of computer science. For example, in a 2003 survey, Ellis was the only full professor of computer science at any of the fifty American universities with the largest budgets, which represented the nation’s most prestigious research universities. Furthermore, at the time of that survey, there were only four Black professors out of 1,332 total computer science faculty members at these institutions. In addition, Ellis earned his Ph.D. at a time when the computer science field was still very new, so he was part of an early group of research leaders. His dissertation research and his long career studying groupware are important to the advancement of computer science as we know it today. Ellis’s humanistic viewpoint was also influential and innovative in this developing field. His focus on collaboration reflected his ethical perspective that computers should enable positive human interactions, rather than replace them.
In conclusion, Ellis paved the way for Black computer scientists as the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in the field, and also as the first to be named a prestigious ACM Fellow. He pursued his interest in computers as a teenager and went on to earn the most advanced research degree available. He worked at many important companies, and the legacy of his work can be seen in modern collaboration systems such as Google Docs. Ellis died unexpectedly on May 17, 2014 at the age of 71, a short time after returning from teaching in Ghana. Ellis is clearly a notable and unsung hero of computer science, and his story deserves to be better known. With the fiftieth anniversary of the conferral of his doctoral degree approaching soon, his legacy deserves to be widely shared and celebrated.
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