The Massachusetts Institute of Technology had its first African-American graduate, Robert R. Taylor, in 1892. It was only 25 years later, in 1917, that the university gave its first civil engineering diploma to an African-American. For quite a while throughout history, engineering was almost entirely the domain of white men.
Although Caucasian males still dominate the profession in the U.S. (only 5 percent of engineers are African-American, only 13.4 percent are women of any race, according to one 2011 report), it's important to recognize the significant legacies that Black men and women have created in the field [source: Koebler].
In this article, we'll head from the copy machines at work to the satellites in space and meet some African-Americans who aren't just pioneers for their race but are trailblazers in their profession.
Let's start with one of the early pioneers of a small feat of engineering that's arguably the most important invention of the 20th century. Born in Jamaica, Walt Braithwaite received a degree in engineering in 1966 and joined up with Boeing the same year. Just as commercial flying was taking off, Braithwaite began flying up the ladder, leading and developing some of the most important aircraft and systems [source: Large].
Braithwaite's team developed computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) systems for Boeing, which led the way for airplanes and, eventually, many other products designed entirely through software. (Goodbye pen and paper drafting!) Braithwaite also became the highest-ranking Black executive at Boeing when he was named president of Boeing Africa in 2000. After 36 years with the aircraft titan, he retired in 2003.
Howard P. Grant
If we're talking trailblazers, we should probably get our vernacular right: These engineers are more likely to carefully plan and execute a well-designed trail than to light a fire to make their way through. Howard Grant is a terrific example of an engineer who systematically built a stellar reputation through his groundbreaking career and myriad professional activities.
Born in 1925, Grant became the first Black graduate of the University of California Berkeley College of Engineering — and that was just his first first. He went on to become the first Black engineer for the city and county of San Francisco, where he addressed water engineering issues, and the first recorded Black member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (that's three "firsts" if you're counting). He was also the man behind the Northern California Council of Black Professional Engineers, an organization that helps introduce the engineering field to Black youth [source: UC Berkeley].
You all know the story: Lowly intern at massively wealthy company moves up the ladder to become CEO of said company. Or perhaps you don't know the story because it never really happens, minus a few dream sequences in movies. But Ursula Burns — CEO of a little outfit called Xerox — did just that, and became the first African American CEO of a Fortune 500 company to boot.
Burns joined Xerox fresh out of Columbia University, where she received her master's degree in mechanical engineering. She soon was working closely with one of the division presidents and was given a title of president in 2007. In 2009, she was named CEO – nearly 30 years after the world's most successful summer internship [source: Iqbal].
George Biddle Kelley
In 1908, George Biddle Kelley graduated from Cornell University's College of Civil Engineering. He became the first African-American engineer registered in the state of New York. Among other endeavors, he was employed by the New York Engineering Department, where he worked on the Barge Canal, a collection of state waterways, during the 1920s. His legacy remains through the George Biddle Kelley scholarship, which aims to mentor and provide educational funds for socioeconomically disadvantaged males in upstate New York [source: George Biddle Kelley Foundation].
The accomplished engineer dedicated to furthering education in young people has another important credit to his name: He was a founding member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the oldest Black Greek fraternal organization. According to the organization, he was also instrumental in creating the "handshake and ritual" that identifies fraternity brothers [source: Alpha Phi Alpha].
If you're looking for an engineer that really impresses you — or depresses you, if you're comparing your accomplishments to his — look no further than Elijah McCoy, who received his first patent in 1872.
It's not just that he held 57 patents, or that he traveled to Scotland at the age of 15 for an apprenticeship and came back with a mechanical engineering degree. It's not even that he did all this as the son of runaway slaves. Or invented a lubrication device that allowed machines in motion to remain oiled. It's that the lubrication device became so important to the machinery industry that, as lore has it, inspectors would ask those running the equipment if they were using "the real McCoy." Yup, Elijah McCoy's engineering is so famous that his name is synonymous with the genuine article. Quite ironically, however, there are several "real McCoy" origin stories, so don't be too quick to label this story — it must be said — the real McCoy.
William Hunter Dammond
Ready to meet another patent holder and pioneer? William Hunter Dammond was the first African American graduate of the Western University of Pennsylvania (which later became the University of Pittsburgh). Dammond graduated with honors from the university in 1893, with a degree in civil engineering [source: Barksdale-Hall].
After assorted professional adventures, Dammond moved to Michigan to work as a bridge engineer. Once there, he hit his stride, inventing an electrical signaling system for railway engineers to recognize the approach of another train and receiving a patent for it [source: U.S. Patent 747,949]. In 1906, he was issued another patent for a "safety system" for railway operation [source: U.S. Patent 823,513].
If you're looking for a person to look up to — regardless of race or gender — Aprille Ericsson is a good candidate. Dr. Ericsson is a senior deputy instrument manager for NASA's Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite program, where she works on mapping instruments for future lunar explorations. In other words, Ericsson has one of the coolest jobs in the universe.
Like any good overachiever, Ericsson's accomplishments started way before her work with NASA. She was the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Howard University and the first American to receive her Ph.D. with an aerospace option in the program. She was also the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center [source: Ericsson].
Alaska Highway Veterans
In February 1942, everything was in place for the construction of the Alaska Highway to begin. There was just one little problem. Nearly all of the Army Corps of Engineers were firmly entrenched in the South Pacific, serving in World War II.
President Roosevelt decided to post several regiments of African-American engineers to the job. This was unusual for a tired reason and a novel one. On the first front, there was still a prejudice that Black workers weren't as qualified for the job. Another just as inaccurate (and odd) reason? Military rules stated that African Americans only be sent to warm climates.
Regardless, three Black regiments were sent along with four groups of white troops. But the regiments were still segregated by race and further distanced by unequal treatment. White regiments with less machinery experience were given equipment, while Black regiments were left to do work by hand. However, the highway was completed in October 1942 — complete with a photo-op of one of the Black soldiers shaking the hand of his white counterpart at the final link [source: American Experience].
Hugh G. Robinson
Another military man, Hugh G. Robinson, became a high-ranking general as an engineer in the Army. He graduated in 1954 from West Point and went on to receive his master's degree in civil engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In Vietnam, he commanded a combat engineering battalion and was the executive officer of an Engineer Group.
After his Vietnam tour, Johnson headed for the Pentagon as a deputy chief of staff, becoming the first Black soldier to serve as a military aide to a president, under Lyndon Johnson in 1965. In 1978, he was promoted to brigadier general — the first African American to serve as a general officer in the Corps of Engineers. As if his accomplishments as an engineer weren't enough, he also received an Air Medal, a Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit and an Army Commendation Medal for his service in Vietnam [source: ASCE].
Wanda M. Austin
In the spirit of fostering a future of pioneers, let's end with another more modern — but no less trailblazing — engineer. Dr. Wanda Austin, armed with a doctorate in systems engineering from the University of Southern California, has been instrumental not only in shaping the U.S. aerospace industry, but also in ensuring national security within the space community. Even President Obama thought she was important enough to put her on a board to review and plan future space missions.
Austin became a senior vice president of the Aerospace Corporation, an independent research and development center serving national space programs, in 2001. She eventually led a group responsible for supporting the intelligence and security community in space systems and ground stations [source: NASA]. In 2008, Austin vaulted from VP to president and CEO of the corporation. In 2009, she landed her gig on President Obama's Review of Human Spaceflight Plans Committee — no doubt a pretty cool group of people, who have come together to advise the government on the future of space missions [source: NASA].
Despite what the nursery rhyme says, London Bridge is not falling down and never has. But the bridge spanning the Thames has been rebuilt over and over.
Author's Note: Famous Black Engineers Throughout History
Let's just reiterate: Only 5 percent of the engineers in the United States are Black, whereas Black people make up about 12 percent of the total population. Yes, there have been some amazing accomplishments from Black men and women in the field. But that doesn't mean there's not quite a bit of room to keep engineering change.
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