Ask FSA Andy by FSA Andy about Walter Lincoln Hawkins


Hello Again!

The snow is piled high along the roadways and the ends of driveways as we have dug out after yet another of winter’s mixed bag of tricks. I’m sure the folks in California would be very grateful for the snow and rain we have had here over the last two weeks. While it is sometimes difficult to appreciate the cold, snow and rain of winter we are truly blessed to be receiving the life giving moisture that will sustain our crops and livestock in the months to come.

We can also be thankful that at this writing we have a new farm bill and we will soon be getting the details and information for new program sign-up this spring. We have all been reading about the content of the new bill as it worked its way through the grinder and we here at FSA will be bringing you information as we receive the official program particulars from USDA.

I am always amazed by the information I find when researching articles for Black History Month. Some of you may be old enough to know that our first underground and underwater telephone cables were covered in fiber and then wrapped in heavy expensive lead sheathing. Scientists knew that plastic would be a good alternative but early plastics were not durable and could not last long outside.

That’s where Walter Lincoln Hawkins comes into the picture. Hawkins was born in 1911 in Washington D.C. His father was a lawyer for the U.S.Census Bureau and his mother was a science teacher in the District of Columbia.

From a very early age Walter was fascinated with how things worked and would routinely take one toy apart and reassemble it to make another one.

While attending Washington Dunbar High School, Hawkins noticed that his science teacher drove an expensive new car every year. The teacher, who invented a self-starter mechanism to replace auto hand cranks, received a new car each year as partial payment for his invention. Hawkins was excited to discover that a person could make a living through mechanical tinkering.

After high school he became one of two African Americans enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and graduated in 1932 with a degree in chemical engineering. Unable to find a job during the Great Depression, he enrolled in graduate school at Howard University earning a Master’s degree in chemistry. Hawkins’ friend and mentor at Howard, Professor Howard Blatt, informed him of a special; scholarship at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Hawkins enrolled at McGill earning his Doctorate in Chemistry in 1939 and then going to Columbia University to continue his research 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. The Japanese had cut off much of America’s rubber supply during World War II and Hawkins contributed to the development of a rubber substitute made from petroleum stock. It was after the war that Hawkins began work on an important project, a new and improved insulation for telephone cables. 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 worked for Bell Labs for thirty four years and became assistant director of their chemical research lab in 1974. His work with polymers and primary plastics focused on the development of new products and recycling. The 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. In 1976 Hawkins retired from Bell, becoming a teacher and encouraging college students to study science and engineering.

In 1981 he became the first chairman of Project SEED, an American Chemical Society program designed to promote science careers for minority students. He also helped set up a program at Bell Labs and AT&T to recruit African American scientists and engineers. Hawkins was often 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. I suppose that our land lines will someday be completely obsolete but just consider what those lines have meant to millions of rural Americans since 1956!

That’s all for now
FSA Andy


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