Engineering: The discipline of science and mathematics blended together to construct, innovate, and improve.
For centuries, there was a pre-conceived notion that only white males, because of the level of intelligence required, could be engineers. An entire race of people was not considered to have the intelligence needed to make contributions to society in the field of engineering. For this reason the doors of opportunity were firmly shut. All that has changed since the end of the Civil War. Black engineers have emerged from dire situations to prove they are capable of being constructors, innovators and improvers. Black engineers of yesterday had to endure racism and prejudice to prove they were worthy of their title. Black engineers of today have to show that the knowledge they possess is valid. The black engineers of tomorrow will show that the parameters of possibility are beyond the sky.
Who were the black engineers of yesterday? How did they reach their positions? What about the black engineers of today? What grounds are to be conquered by the black engineers of tomorrow?
It doesnt take much to understand that African-Americans in the late 1800s had it bad. In most parts of the country, there were efforts to educate them, but only to a certain extent. Most African-Americans who had a desire to learn taught themselves or found admittance into a university in another country. Those who did find a way to get into an American university, studied, for the most part, liberal arts and law. Science and engineering aspirations, however, were more difficult to fulfill. That didnt stop some individuals.
Granville T. Woods learned engineering from white machine workers while he was working on the railroads. To supplement his education, he had white friends check out books for him from the library (Blacks were not allowed to check out books in certain parts of the country.). Woods eventually managed to find entry into a university on the East Coast to formally study engineering. Known as the Black Edison, Woods helped revolutionize communications and railway systems. He invented more than a dozen devices to improve electric railway cars and others for controlling the flow of electricity. His most noted invention was a system that warned engineers of the proximity of other trains, which helped reduce the number of accidents and collisions.
Woods also invested his time in learning electronics. In 1888 he developed overhead electric conducting lines for railroads, in 1889 he filed a patent for an improved steam boiler furnace, and in 1892 he patented the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph. Throughout his lifetime, he received more than 60 patents.
Elijah McCoy was born to runaway slaves in Ontario, Canada. After completing grammar school, his parents sent him to Scotland to become a mechanical engineering apprentice. Upon returning to the United States, he could not find a job that suited his profession. He did, however, manage to find work in the railroad industry. It was this work that led McCoy to a revolutionary invention.
At that time, locomotive parts needed lubrication in order for the train to run. The only way to do that was to stop the train and do it by hand, a time-consuming and costly process. McCoy created a self-lubricating system, the graphite lubricator, that did not require the train to stop. This nifty invention gained McCoy popularity and sold across the country. Other companies tried to duplicate his invention, but could not come close to the authentic design. Machinists and engineers who wanted the real deal asked, Is it the Real McCoy?
In 1920, McCoy established his own company, the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company, and served as a consultant to the railroad industry on patent matters. During his life, he invented and sold 57 different kinds of devices and machine parts, including a folding ironing board (for which he received a patent) and a lawn sprinkler.
Woods and McCoy had a difficult road in proving that African-Americans were capable of being engineers, but their efforts and perseverance opened doors for many others.
Black engineers have been proving their worth in a rapidly changing technology field. W. Lincoln Hawkins received 18 U.S. and 129 foreign patents. The first African-American scientist to work for Bell Labs, Hawkins made universal telephone service possible by co-inventing a chemical additive that prevents the plastic coating on telecommunications cables from deteriorating. He won the National Medal of Technology in the year of his death (1992).
African-American engineers have also taken the tradition of domestic inventions to a high-tech level. David Crosthwait received 34 U.S. and 80 foreign patents and designed the heating system of New Yorks Rockefeller Center in 1931. He died in 1976. Marie Van Brittain Brown and Albert L. Brown co-patented in 1969 an audio-visual door-monitor/home security system. Clarence L. Elder of Baltimore has earned a number of patents for his energy-saving Occustat system, which uses motion detectors to allow thermostats to be lowered in a buildings unoccupied rooms. Dr. Mae Jemison, a chemical engineer, medical doctor and astronaut, became the first black woman to blast off into space when she accompanied a U.S./Japan science mission in 1988.
Although there are more black engineers than ever before, the numbers of those working in industry still are low. Charles W. Holmes wrote in the Arizona Republic (July 23, 2000) that The White House advisory group said African-Americans, among other minority groups, make up one-fourth of the total work force in America. The article said only 5.9% of those workers are engineers, a factor called the Digital Divide. Some speculate the reason for this is the lack of adequate education of math and science at the junior and senior high school levels. Many professional black engineers such as Dr. Jemison, who have reached their career peak, now are pouring support into promoting math and science to minority students.
With more Black engineers entering a variety of fields, what should they pursue now?
I would say that engineers of tomorrow could focus more on academia, said Tony Williams, a graduate student in industrial engineering at UNL and president of the Nebraska National Society of Black Engineers. I believe this would prove positive for engineers of tomorrow.
Reaching for positions in the academic field, such as professorship and advising, will help future engineering students receive support and mentoring. Teachers are needed to help lay a solid foundation of math and science to prospective engineering students so they can continue the cycle of building, innovating and improving.
Some information for this story came from the following Web sites:
For additional information on Dr. Mae Jemison, go to: http://www.maejemison.com.