Modern History Highlight: Clarence “Skip” Ellis – Computer Scientist

This is an excerpt from our Snail Mail issue focused on design and accessibility. Read on to learn about an important figure in the world of computer science. How have his contributions change your day to day life?

Clarence “Skip” Ellis is one of the foundational people behind modern computer science! He was connected to the invention and implementation of the bedrock for modern computing!

When he was just 15, Ellis got a job as a night guard for a company with a brand new computer that he was not allowed to touch. Captivated by the machine, he read every manual for it while on the job and built up a great knowledge of the computer without ever using it! It turns out that reading the manual would save the company when they later ran into an issue with the computer! The computer was operated by punch cards, but all the cards had been used up and only Ellis knew how to bypass the computer’s security so that previously used punch cards could be used again.

He was the first African American to receive a PhD in computer science in the United States. He did research related to Arpanet – a prototype of the internet. He got to imagine the future we live in!

Ellis was one of the people behind icons and icon-based user interfaces. He helped us move away from purely text-based computing systems into a more accessible form of navigating a PC!

Clarence believed in the ability for technology to bring people together and he laid the groundwork for digital collaboration. He developed a program that would inspire Google Docs to integrate real-time multi-user collaboration!

On top of all his achievements in the field of computer science, he was highly inspired by the civil rights movement and even watched Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial! His influence in the field of CS has made computers easier to use by everybody in the world.