Walter Lincoln Hawkins
Walter Lincoln Hawkins (1911–1992) was an African-American chemist and engineer widely regarded as a pioneer of polymer chemistry. For thirty-four years he worked at Bell Laboratories, where he was instrumental in designing a long-lasting plastic to sheath telephone cables, so assisting the introduction of telephone services to thousands of Americans. Hawkins was the first African-American to become a member of the National Academy of Engineering, and in 1992 he was awarded the National Medal of Technology by the U.S. president, George H. W. Bush.
When he was young, Hawkins was fascinated with how things worked. For example, it was not unusual for him to take apart one toy and reassemble it to make another one. He also made spring-driven toy boats to sail in the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Hawkins and a fellow eleven-year-old once tried to build a perpetual motion machine, not realizing that it was an impossible task. He built a working radio so he could listen to Washington Senators baseball games.
While at Washington's Dunbar High School, Hawkins noticed that his physics teacher drove an expensive new car every year. The teacher, who had invented a self-starter mechanism to replace automobile hand cranks, received a new car each year as partial payment from the company which had bought the mechanism. Hawkins was tremendously excited to discover that a person could make a living through mechanical tinkering.
After graduating from high school he went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. In 1932 he graduated with a chemical engineering degree. Unable to find a job during the Great Depression, he enrolled in graduate school at Howard University, where in 1934, he earned a master's degree in chemistry. Professor Howard Blatt, Hawkins’ friend and mentor at Howard, informed him of a special scholarship at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Hawkins enrolled at McGill, earned his Doctorate in Chemistry, and left to continue his research at Columbia University when he received a fellowship from the National Research Council.
In 1942, Hawkins became the first African-American to join the technical staff of Bell Laboratories. By controlling much of the Pacific theater in World War II, the Japanese had cut off much of America's rubber supply from Southeast Asia. Hawkins contributed to the development of a rubber substitute made from petroleum stock.
After the war, Hawkins began work on an important project, a new and improved insulation for telephone cables. Underground and underwater cables, which were laid over incredibly long distances, were covered with fiber wrapped in heavy, expensive lead sheathing. Scientists had known that new, lightweight plastics would be a good alternative, but common plastics did not last long outdoors. Hawkins and Vincent Lanza in 1956 invented a plastic coating that could withstand extreme fluctuations in temperature, last up to seventy years, and was less expensive than lead. Telephone lines were subsequently installed in rural areas, bringing affordable phone service to thousands of people.
Hawkins, who worked at Bell Labs for thirty-four years, became assistant director of their chemical research lab in 1974. His work with polymers, primarily plastics, focused on the development of new products and recycling. The extremely durable nature of plastic becomes a huge problem when it must be discarded. Hawkins became an expert, not only in making plastics last longer, but in recycling these seemingly indestructible products.
Upon his retirement from Bell Labs in 1976, Hawkins began teaching and encouraging college students to study science and engineering. In 1981, he became the first chairman of Project SEED (Support of the Educationally & Economically Disadvantaged), an American Chemical Society program designed to promote science careers for minority students. He also helped to set up a program at Bell Labs and AT&T to recruit African-American scientists and engineers.
Hawkins was frequently honored as a polymer chemistry pioneer. The first African-American to become a member of the National Academy of Engineering, Hawkins also won the International Medal of the Society of Plastics. In a 1992 White House ceremony, he received the National Medal of Technology from President George H. W. Bush.
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