Saluting African-American scientists, culture during recognition month

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Thomas Kuhfahl
  • 28th Contracting Squadron
Historically, African American inventors and scientists have received little to no recognition for their work and contributions to society. This is especially true if the impacts of their inventions and discoveries were taken for granted. 

In my time studying industrial engineering, I learned about many accomplishments of well-known scientists and inventors. During my research for this article, I discovered Walter L. Hawkins, Ph.D., a chemical engineer specializing in plastic polymers.

At the start of World War II, he was the first African-American to join Bell Laboratories, a world renowned research and development facility.

During this time, Japan had taken over much of the Pacific, along with the vast majority of the world's natural rubber supply. Dr. Hawkins played an important role in developing a petroleum-based substitute, a synthetic rubber used in nearly every military vehicle during WWII. Variations of this synthetic rubber are still used today in the tires of our vehicles.

In the post-World War II-era, Dr. Hawkins used his skills as a chemical engineer to help the masses. Until 1956, power cables were wrapped in lead to protect the wires from weather and other interferences. This made power cables very expensive and heavy, essentially cutting off the power grid from thousands of rural residents.

Dr. Hawkins invented a new plastic polymer capable of withstanding extreme weather conditions. By inventing this new type of plastic, he enabled the electric grid to reach more than 99 percent of the residents in America, and millions of people around the world. 

In the final stages of his career, Dr. Hawkins dedicated his time to promoting science and technology careers to minority students. He received the National Medal of Technology from President George H.W. Bush and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his achievements. 

The cultural impacts of Dr. Hawkins' work had far reaching effects, even for me. As a white individual growing up in rural Vermont, I had very limited exposure to the African-American community. 

My first African-American friends were classmates from my engineering school with whom I developed a deep respect for and a sense of camaraderie. For this reason, I wanted to highlight the effects that people, like Dr. Hawkins, have had on American culture. 

As we wrap up African-American History Month, I salute Dr. Hawkins, from one engineer to another, for both his scientific achievements in polymer plastics and his impact on American culture over the past century.