BY Stephen Nartey, 12:38pm February 15, 2023,

This African-American scientist is behind the material used to protect telephone cables to enhance connectivity

Walter Lincoln Hawkins/Photo via Plastics Industry Association

Over the three decades of his career, African-American scientist Walter Lincoln Hawkins pioneered a global revolution that changed the way plastics were recycled and fiber optic lines were preserved.

The boy who was raised as an orphan by his sister changed perceptions about African-American scientists in the 1900s. Born on March 21, 1911, he had to work twice as hard to pursue education as a result of the racial climate he grew up in.

He had formal education at the Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. He demonstrated a flair for mathematics and science during those early days which became a springboard for his future exploits, according to Lemelson-MiT.

He furthered his education at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1932 where he received a degree in chemical engineering. He later attended Howard University where he pursued a master’s degree in chemistry and subsequently did his doctoral degree at McGill University.

Hawkins used his knowledge of the plastic industry to assist the U.S. during World War II to create synthetic substitutes for rubber, a material that was badly needed for the success of the war but largely controlled by Axis powers, as documented by Plastics Industry Association.

He broke new ground with his research on how to predict the durability of a plastic surface using spectroscopy. After Hawkins’ service in the war, he was employed by AT&T’s Bell Laboratories and became the first African-American scientist there. One of his early works there was the invention of a polymer coating now known as “plastic cable sheath” which is used to safeguard telephone cables.

Earlier materials used in shielding cables were costly and toxic and could easily wear out as a result of the weather. His innovation in the 1960s became a game-changer for industry players because the chemicals he used for his polymer coating were cheap and safer to use. Additionally, they could withstand harsh weather conditions. This went a long way to save telecom companies billions of dollars while enhancing connectivity. Hawkins’ invention is still used today to protect fiber optic cables.

Hawkins during his career published three books and more than 50 scientific papers. He also received 18 U.S. and 129 foreign patents. His influence was not only in the plastic space. He also mentored minority groups in the U.S. and became the first chairman of the American Chemical Society’s Project SEED (Summer Educational Experience for the Economically Disadvantaged).

He retired from Bell Labs in 1976 but remained a patron and contributor to the industry for many years. He was the research director of the Plastics Institute of America from 1976 to 1983. He was also a teacher at New York’s Polytechnic Institute and later a technical consultant for chemical and pharmaceutical companies.

The American chemist was awarded a National Medal of Technology by President George W. Bush. He died in 1992.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: February 15, 2023


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