|For Immediate Release ||AIChE Communications |
Black Engineers' Achievements:
From the Bronze Age to the Space Age
NEW YORK - From the Bronze Age to the Space Age, the contributions of early black inventors, although often overlooked, have significantly improved our everyday lives. A typical invention was that by the son of a slave that paved the way for components critical to space flight, according to John Lienhard, an engineering historian, and host of National Public Radio's Engines of Our Ingenuity.
Engineering achievements are celebrated during National Engineers Week, February 21-27. The event, which coincides with Black History Month, is saluting African- American engineers, their rich past, and exciting future.
Norbert Rillieux was born in New Orleans in 1806. His mother was a slave and his father was her master- not an uncommon situation in those days. Norbert's father freed his mother before the birth, and took Norbert as his son. The boy was extremely bright, so his father sent him off to Ecole Centrale in Paris, where he studied engineering.
He also began working on a problem from Louisiana, Lienhard recounted. "The last thing you do when you make white sugar is to evaporate the water used in the refining process. That extracts a terrible cost in fuel. Norbert Rillieux put his thermodynamic knowledge to work and invented the first multistage evaporator. By evaporating and condensing at successively lower pressures, he used the heat over and over. It was a brilliant idea," Lienhard says.
Rillieux returned to America and patented his machine in 1846. Although his machine revolutionized sugar refining, he never really got proper credit for his invention. Still, at age 75, he patented another process- one that cut the cost of processing sugar beets in half.
Lienhard says that Rillieux's inventions can still be seen in today's technology. "In fact," he explains, "Rillieux's evaporators are used for everything from desalting sea water to recycling processes in space vehicles."
Norbert Rillieux was just one of many African- Americans whose contributions have greatly improved our everyday lives. W. Lincoln ("Linc") Hawkins was another such individual, according to George Campbell, president of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering. In the midst of the Great Depression, orphaned and raised by a sister, Hawkins managed to follow his dream to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he earned a BS in chemical engineering. After receiving an MS from Howard and PhD from McGill, he became the first African-American researcher at AT&T Bell Laboratories.
Hawkins' breakthrough achievement was as coinventor of an additive that stabilizes the plastic protective covering of telephone cables. This technology, Campbell notes, has saved billions of dollars for telephone and power companies around the world, and helped to make telephone service both economical and universal. In the course of a career spanning 34 years at Bell Labs, Hawkins was granted 18 US and 129 foreign patents related to the development of environmentally advanced materials for communications equipment. Hawkins, who died in 1992, had been presented with the National Medal of Technology by President Bush earlier that year.
Several African- Americans made significant advances in heating and refrigeration. Frederick M. Jones held more than 60 patents in a variety of fields, but refrigeration was his specialty. He developed the first automatic refrigeration system for long- haul trucks more than half a century ago. This system was later adapted for all kinds of other applications, greatly enhancing the ability to transport perishable foods. David Crosthwait was another African- American pioneer in the field, receiving dozens of patents, and developing the heating system for Rockefeller Center in New York City.
Other notable African- American innovators include Otis Boykin (electronic devices for computers, radios, and TVs), Ozzie Williams (the first air- borne radar beacon), Jan Matzeliger (the shoe lasting machine), Charles Edward Drew (blood banking), Sarah Boone (the ironing board), Hyram S. Thomas (the potato chip), W.B. Purvis (the paper bag machine), and J. L. Love (the pencil sharpener). Although we may take them for granted now, all of these innovations have significantly improved our everyday quality of life.
Other significant engineering achievements have their roots in Africa, Lienhard says. The African nation of Zimbabwe takes its name from an ancient masonry city called Great Zimbabwe, which was once a great peaceful trading center. The ruins are a vast engineering complex of rooms and maze- like patterns of passageways, running for almost a mile. Lienhard said that carbon dating has shown that the Iron Age Rhodesians began the city after 200 AD, then abandoned it until the 9th or 10th century. The masonry went up in the 11th century, just before the Gothic Cathedrals in Europe. He said, "Great Zimbabwe is only one of hundreds of abandoned Zimbabwes engineered in other parts of Africa."
Lienhard has served is one of 60- plus engineering All- Stars, representing the highest levels of business, government, and the arts, who are leading the celebration of National Engineers Week. His program, Engines Of Our Ingenuity, which celebrates the history of - and achievements in - engineering, is broadcast nationwide and available to Public Radio Stations free of charge.
For further information and correspondence on Engines of Our Ingenuity, contact Dr. John Lienhard by e- mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.