Clarence “Skip” Ellis was the first Black Ph.D. in computer science and a trailblazer in the burgeoning field.
Born in 1943, in the South Side of Chicago, Ellis first became interested in computers when he served as a night-shift security guard at the Dover Corporation, while still in high school. This initial foray into computers led him to a scholarship in mathematics at Beloit College. Ellis was one of the few Black students at the time at Beloit and involved in setting up the school’s first computer laboratory.
Ellis continued his education by receiving a Master of Science in mathematics and then a Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in 1969. The first Ph.D. ever granted in computer science was in 1965. Ellis’ dissertation in 1969 anticipated modern search engines such as Google as well as artificial intelligence.
After earning his Ph.D., Ellis had an extensive career in the computer science field working as a researcher and software developer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, IBM, Xerox PARC, Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation serving as head of the Groupware Research Group, Los Alamos Scientific Labs Argonne National Lab working on supercomputers, MIT on ARPANET, the Institute for the Future, and Bull S.A as the chief architect of the FlowPath workflow product. Additionally, Ellis taught at Stanford University, Stevens Institute of Technology, Johannes Kepler Institute in Austria, and at National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan and finally at the University of Colorado, at Boulder as a professor and director of the Collaboration Technology Research Group. Most significantly, while at Xerox PARC, he was a part of a team to work on the world’s first personal computer, related interfaces and software, as well as the first office system with icons and ethernet.
Ellis published extensively in professional journals and was widely cited, writing over 100 technical papers and several books. In 1998, Ellis was named the first Black Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). After retirement, Ellis taught at Ashesi University in Accra, Ghana. As late as 2003, he was the only full professor of computer science in the top 50 most prestigious universities, and one of only four Black computer science faculty.