Ellis, Clarence A. 1943–
Clarence A. Ellis 1943–
Professor, computer scientist
Clarence “Skip” Ellis is the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in computer science. Although he was introduced to computers by accident, he developed a passion for understanding how they work, and he dedicated his career to improving how they function. Ellis has worked as a computer science researcher for some of the country’s leading technological firms, while working at the University of Boulder, where he continued to pursue his research agenda, as well as teach new generations of computer scientists.
Clarence A. Ellis, known among his friends and associates as “Skip,” was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1943. He was one of five children raised by a single mother in a poor, and often violent, neighborhood on Chicago’s south side. Ellis mostly kept to himself as a child and this helped him stay out of trouble.
When he was 15 years old, Ellis got a part-time job at an insurance company to help support his family. He worked as a security guard on the night shift and his primary responsibility was guarding the company’s new computer. In 1958 computers were rare and expensive. They were also quite large, since microcircuits had not yet been invented. Ellis’ job was to protect the company’s computer from theft and vandalism. Although he was not allowed to touch the new computer, he did have access to all of the computer’s operating manuals. During his long hours guarding the computer, Ellis read all of these manuals.
Ellis’ ambition was put to good use one day when there was a computing crisis at the insurance company. At that time data was entered into computers using punch cards. The computer technicians at the insurance company were in the middle of an important project when they ran out of punch cards. No one knew how to fix the problem, except for Ellis. One of the things he had learned form his late-night reading was how to reuse old punch cards. Ellis not only made a good impression at work, but he also took his first step toward a career in computer science.
When Ellis was in high school his teachers encouraged him to attend summer programs at local colleges. Ellis became exposed to university life and met students from outside of his own neighborhood. Although he was interested in attending college, his family did not have the means to pay for college expenses. Luckily, the pastor of Ellis’ church learned of a scholarship at Beloit College in Wisconsin. Ellis applied for and won the scholarship. In 1960 he moved to Beloit, which was about 100 miles from Chicago. He was the only African-American student at the college at that time.
Ellis struggled to keep up with his classes during his first years of college. He quickly realized that he was not as well prepared for college as most of his white peers were. He spent all of his free time studying and therefore he did not enjoy many of the extracurricular
At a Glance…
Born Clarence Arthur Ellis in 1943 in Chicago, IL. Education: Beloit College, BS, 1964; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, PhD, 1969.
Career: AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories; Xerox; IBM; Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation; Los Alamos Scientific Laboratories; Argonne National Laboratory; Stanford University; University of Texas; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Stevens Institute of Technology; University of Colorado at Boulder, 1992-.
Memberships: National Science Foundation Computer Science Advisory Board; University of Singapore ISS International Advisory Board; National Science Foundation Computer Science Education Committee; Chairperson, Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Office Information Systems.
Awards: Fellow, Association for Computing Machinery, 1997; Grant recipient, Laboratory for New Media Strategy and Design, 2000.
Addresses: Office —University of Colorado, Department of Computer Science, 430 UCB, Boulder, CO 80309-0430.
activities of college. Although he was often lonely, he was encouraged by his family and he found the strength to persevere.
College life improved for Ellis during his third year. A computer was donated to the college and Ellis and a chemistry professor were assigned to set it up and establish the college’s first computer laboratory. Ellis spent countless hours in the computer lab and he recognized that computers were his passion. In 1964 Ellis graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in math and physics, but he really wanted to pursue a career in computer science.
Ellis decided to go to graduate school to learn more about computers. Few people encouraged him to pursue an advanced degree. “People put together an image of what I was supposed to be,” Ellis told Lydia Lum of Black Issues in Higher Education in February of 2000, and that image did not include computer scientist. However, Ellis did not want to fit into a stereotypical mold, so he followed his passion. He attended graduate school at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. There he had the opportunity to work with the hardware and software for one of the first supercomputers called the Illiac 4. In 1969 Ellis became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in computer science.
Ellis’ first job after graduate school was as a supercomputer researcher for AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories. Next he worked as a research scientist for Xerox in Palo Alto, California. At this job, Ellis helped create the idea of clicking on a graphic to start a computer program or to issue a command, rather than typing in lines of computer code. This became a defining feature of the Apple computer and it was later incorporated into the Microsoft Windows operating system. The point-and-click feature of computers is so common today that most computer users are unfamiliar with the days when knowing complicated programming code was the only way to work with a computer.
Ellis has also worked in computer research and development for IBM, Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, Los Alamos Scientific Labs, and Argonne National Laboratory. He has also held several academic positions at Stanford University, the University of Texas, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stevens Institute of Technology. Ellis even traveled to Taiwan on an American Federation of Information Processing Societies (AFIPS) overseas teaching fellowship.
In 1992 Ellis accepted an academic position at the University of Colorado at Boulder where he is a professor of computer science. In this capacity Ellis conducts research in the areas of workflow technology, groupware, cognitive science, object-oriented systems, computer supported cooperative work, and systems design and modeling. In particular, Ellis has worked to establish national standards to make computers more user-friendly. He is also the director of the Collaboration Technology Research group and a member of the Systems Software Laboratory and the Institute for Cognitive Science. Ellis has published numerous books, technical papers and reports in his areas of expertise. He has also traveled worldwide lecturing about computer science topics.
In addition to research, Ellis especially enjoys teaching introductory computer science courses where he can encourage minority students to explore a variety of career options and challenge their minds. He even helped develop a summer program at the University of Colorado, called Summer Multicultural Access to Research Training (SMART), to provide internships in science and engineering. Ellis hopes that his teaching efforts will make his students’ access into non-traditional fields easier than his experiences.
(With Naja Naffah) Design of Office Information Systems, Springer-Verlag, 1987.
“Probabilistic Tree Automata,” Information and Control, 1971.
“The Halting Problem for Probabilistic Context-Free Generators,” Journal of the Association of Computer Machinists, 1972.
“Optimal Scheduling of Homogeneous Job Systems,” Information Science, 1975.
“Probabilistic Models of Computer Deadlock,” Information Science, 1977.
“Analysis of Some Abstract Measures of Protection in Computer Systems,” International Journal of Computer Information Science, 1978.
(With Show-Way Yeh, Aral Ege, and Henry F. Korth) “Performance Analysis of Two Concurrency Control Schemes for Design Environments,” Information Science, 1989.
(With G. Rein) “rIBIS: A Real Time Group Hyptertext System,” International Journal of Man Machine Studies, 1991.
“Goal Based Workflow Systems,” International Journal of Collaborative Computing, 1994.
“Probabilistic Languages and Automata,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Illinois, 1969.
World of Computer Science, Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2002.
Black Issues in Higher Education, February 28, 2002, p. 36-45.
The Denver Post, October 8, 2000, p. L20.
The Denver Rocky Mountain News, December 8, 1997, p. 6B.
University of Colorado, www.cs.colorado.edu/~skip/bioEUis.html
Computer Scientists of the African Diaspora, www.math.buffalo.edu/mad/computer-science/ellis_clarencea.html
—Janet P. Stamatel
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