Walter Lincoln Hawkins, an African-American scientist, pioneered a global revolution that changed the way plastics were recycled and fiber optic lines were preserved over the course of his three-decade career.
The orphaned boy raised by his sister changed perceptions of African-American scientists in the 1900s. Because of the racial climate in which he grew up, he had to work twice as hard to pursue an education.
He received his formal education at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. According to Lemelson-MiT, he demonstrated a talent for mathematics and science during his early years, which served as a springboard for his future exploits.
In 1932, he continued his education at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he earned a degree in chemical engineering. He later attended Howard University, where he earned a master’s degree in chemistry, and then McGill University, where he earned his doctorate.
Hawkins used his knowledge of the plastics industry to help the United States create synthetic substitutes for rubber during World War II, a material that was desperately needed for the war’s success but was largely controlled by Axis powers, according to the Plastics Industry Association.
With his research on how to predict the durability of a plastic surface using spectroscopy, he broke new ground. Following his service in the war, Hawkins was hired by AT&T’s Bell Laboratories and became the company’s first African-American scientist. One of his early contributions was the development of a polymer coating that is now known as “plastic cable sheath” and is used to protect telephone cables.
Earlier materials used in shielding cables were expensive and toxic, and they wore out quickly due to weather. In the 1960s, his innovation was a game changer for industry players because the chemicals he used for his polymer coating were inexpensive and safer to use. They could also withstand harsh weather conditions. This helped telecom companies save billions of dollars while improving connectivity. Hawkins’ invention is still used to safeguard fiber optic cables today.
Hawkins published three books and over 50 scientific papers during his career. He was also granted 18 US patents and 129 foreign patents. His influence extended beyond the plastic realm. He also served as a mentor to minority groups in the United States and was the first chairman of the American Chemical Society’s Project SEED (Summer Educational Experience for the Economically Disadvantaged).
He left Bell Labs in 1976 but remained an industry supporter and contributor for many years. From 1976 to 1983, he was the Plastics Institute of America’s research director. He also taught at the Polytechnic Institute of New York and later worked as a technical consultant for chemical and pharmaceutical companies.
President George W. Bush bestowed the National Medal of Technology on the American chemist. He passed away in 1992.