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Great Engineers & Scientists

In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton wrote "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants." In this blog, we take Newton's words to heart, and recognize the many great engineers and scientists upon whose shoulders we stand.

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W. Lincoln Hawkins: Prince of Plastics

Posted February 20, 2010 9:30 AM by Steve Melito

W. Lincoln Hawkins was a chemist who helped popularize telephone service by co-inventing an inexpensive plastic insulator for telephone cables. The holder of nearly 150 patents, Dr. Hawkins was also the first African-American scientist at AT&T Bell Labs. He was a recipient of the National Medal of Technology and the first black engineer to be inducted into the National Academy of Engineering

Early Life and Education

Walter Lincoln Hawkins was born on March 21, 1911. Orphaned as a young child, he was raised by a sister and attended Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. There, at the federal district's first high school for African-American students, Hawkins excelled in math and science. He then attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, where he graduated with a degree in chemical engineering in 1932. After earning a Master's degree in chemistry at Howard University, W. Lincoln Hawkins received his doctorate from Montreal's McGill University, where specialized in cellulose chemistry.

Plastic Cable Sheath

Following a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University, W. Lincoln Hawkins was invited to join AT&T's Bell Laboratories. In 1942, the 33-year old chemist became the first African-American scientist on staff at the Murray Hill, New Jersey facility. Over the course of his 34-year career, Dr. Hawkins conducted extensive research regarding the thermal and oxidative stabilization of polymers for telecommunications. He also played an important role in the development of methods for the reuse and recycling of plastics.

Prior to the 1950s, most telephone cables were coated with a costly lead-based material. British inventors had replaced this undesirable insulation with polyethylene (PE), but their early plastic coatings became brittle and breakable when exposed to sunlight. In 1956, W. Lincoln Hawkins and Victor Lanza invented a polymer that is now known as "plastic cable sheath". This safe, durable and inexpensive coating contained a chemical additive made of carbon and antioxidants that prevented the plastic from deteriorating, even under extreme temperature conditions. The new coating for telecommunications wire went into production in 1960 and is still used today.

Additional Achievements

A prodigious researcher, W. Lincoln Hawkins was made head of plastics chemistry research and development (R&D) at Bell Labs. He later served as supervisor of applied research prior to his promotion to department head in 1972. Dr. Hawkins then added achievements such as the design of a laboratory test that used spectroscopy to predict the durability of plastic surfaces. He also published three books and more than 50 scientific papers while earning numerous other patents.

In 1976, Walter Hawkins retired from Bell Labs to serve as research director of the Plastics Institute of America (PIA). He also taught classes at New York's Polytechnic Institute and worked as a consultant for several major chemical and pharmaceutical companies. During this time, W. Lincoln Hawkins continued his service to America's youth, an effort dating back to his tenure as first chair of American Chemical Society's (ACS) Project SEED (Summer Educational Experience for the Economically Disadvantaged).

W. Lincoln Hawkins died in 1992 at the age of 81.

Resources:

https://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/hawkins.html

https://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/AAweek4.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar_High_School_%28Washington,_D.C.%29

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