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Faces of HPC: Clarence “Skip” Arthur Ellis

Clarence Ellis was the first African American to obtain a PhD in computer science (1969). Born in Chicago, USA, to a poor family, he went to college and discovered a passion for computers. Ellis invented Officetalk, the first system that enabled people to collaborate from distance and was Emeritus Professor of Computer Science and Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder.


At the age of 15 Clarence Ellis started working as a night-shift computer operator at the manufacturing firm, Dover, although his primary role was to provide security for the facility and watch for break-ins and vandalism During this time he taught himself about computers, igniting his interest in computer science. In college, he was responsible for setting up his school's computer and later, became the first African American to complete a PhD in computer science.


Clarence 'Skip' Ellis was born the 11th May 1943, in Chicago, Illinois. He had four siblings and lived in a poor neighbourhood, with a high-level of crime. He was a very quiet child, who didn't participate in many activities outside school. At 15 years old, he wanted to help his family financially, so he applied for a job, to be a night-shift operator for Dover's new expensive computer. He was appointed as he was the only applicant but found that the job was actually to walk around all night and prevent break-ins. He was not allowed to touch the computer, so in his spare time, he studied computer manuals until he became an expert. After two months working there, Ellis helped out in an emergency as the only member of staff who knew how to use recycled punch cards.

During his high school years, Ellis was encouraged to attend few summer schools in universities, to experience the life outside his neighbourhood. His family was awarded with a scholarship that enabled him to study at Beloit College, as the only African American student. Beloit did not offer a degree in computer science and Ellis found the classes difficult, such that he considered quitting. Fortunately, when an IBM 1620 computer was donated to the school, Skip was the student to help his chemistry professor to set it up. In 1964 he received a bachelor degree in Mathematics and Physics.

Ellis went to MIT for graduate school, but had to leave after a short period due to his civil rights activism. He received his PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and became the first African-American to have a PhD in computer science.

During his career Ellis worked at several important computing companies. He joined AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories as a supercomputer researcher, he worked for Xerox on the idea of clicking on a graphic to start a computer application instead of typing commands, and for other companies including IBM, Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, Los Alamos Scientific Labs and Argonne National Laboratory.

Ellis also accepted academic positions at Stanford University, the University of Texas, MIT, Stevens Institute of Technology and University of Colorado. Ellis also taught introductory computer science to minority students and encouraged them to follow this career. In 1988, he was named a Fellow of ACM in recognition of his impact in the office information systems field.



Last updated: 27 Jun 2016 at 13:42