InTrans / Nov 10, 2015

Women engineers of the 20th century: Meet Olive Dennis

Go! Magazine

Train carposted on November 10, 2015

This month’s series is dedicated to women engineers that have changed the transportation industry. Women working in an engineering field in the 20th century faced many barriers to success. This typically male-dominated career path has steadily enlarged to include more women, which has further broadened the field of engineering by including women’s ideas, creativity, and values.

Engineering is, by definition, a branch of science and technology concerned with the design, building, and use of engines, machines, and structures.

Although most overt discrimination against women working and studying in the sciences have been reduced or eliminated in recent decades through legal, academic, and government measures, the fact is that women are still outnumbered by men in these fields.

Having few female engineers in education is problematic, because there are fewer female mentors and role models for those women today looking to pursue a career in engineering.

Today, only 14 percent of engineers are female. According to a National Science Foundation report, the proportion of women receiving degrees in science and engineering has increased slightly in recent years, and in 2003, women accounted for 30 percent of the doctorate degrees in science and 9 percent of those awarded in engineering. 1

However few we have today, female engineers in the past were a rarity. But many of those who did follow this career path ended up doing some pretty amazing things.

Meet Olive Dennis

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of Olive Dennis, a female engineer living in America in the early 1900s. Did you know that Dennis was only the second woman to graduate from Cornell University with a degree in civil engineering? Before Cornell, she taught math in a Baltimore school district for over 10 years. During her time as a teacher, she said that she kept coming back to civil engineering. So after earning her degree, she continued on to Columbia University where she received her master’s degree in math and astronomy.

Olive Dennis, 1885-1957
Olive Dennis, 1885-1957. Photo from Wikipedia.

With her prestigious educational background, you would think people would be lining up to give Dennis a job, right? Not exactly. Although she was able to get a job quickly with the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad, the main reason for her recruitment was so she could upgrade the railroads to increase women ridership. Had this opportunity not arisen, Dennis may have had more difficulty taking leadership roles in an engineering position.

What was life like for women in the 1920s?

To provide some context for how unusual it was for Olive Dennis to be an engineer during the 1920s, let’s look at what was happening during this time period. First, the 19th amendment granting women’s suffrage (right to vote) had just been passed in 1920. Additionally, World War I (WWI) (1914-1918) had just ended and had changed the role of women from homemakers to workers. More than 25 percent of women joined the workforce at that time. Most women assumed roles as factory workers, secretaries, salesclerks, and telephone operators. 2 Women in these occupations were poorly paid, which forced many women to remain reliant on men for most of their family’s income.

In addition, many Americans during the 1920s experienced deep poverty due to the Great Depression. Most affected were African Americans, women, and farmers. Although the early 1920s (called the “Roaring Twenties”) brought with it an emphasis for having fun and spending money, many people were still struggling. But the 1920s were a time for women to become more independent overall. With the advent of the Model T, women began learning to drive and even more women started going to college (i.e., there was a 10 percent increase by the end of the decade).

Olive’s contributions

Now that we can acknowledge how much of an accomplishment it was for Olive to even pursue engineering, let’s take a look at some of her accomplishments.

Her main focus was on improving comfort in passenger trains. At the time Dennis began working, passenger trains were the only viable mode of transportation.

Inside a passenger rail car in the early 1900s
Inside a passenger rail car in the early 1900s. Photo from Wikipedia.

It wasn’t until after the 1920s that automobiles and airplanes started to take over the market as the main modes of transportation. One of her inventions was called the “Dennis ventilator,” which allowed passengers to let in fresh air. Her invention set the stage for implementing air conditioning in passenger cars in the 1930s.

She also had the idea to dim overhead lights in the cars at night, recline individual seats, and create stain-resistant upholstery. 3 These inventions made rail carriers attractive, and later buses and airlines had to make similar upgrades in order to compete. Her other ideas included creating shorter seats so passengers’ feet wouldn’t dangle, cribs for babies on-board, and lighter meals on the menus for dining cars. 4

Those that remember Dennis remember that she was not your average 1920s woman. She would travel countless miles on rail cars (up to 50,000 miles each year) just to sit up all night to try out seats and new mattresses in an attempt to further improve passenger comfort. She was also the first female to be elected to the American Railway Engineering Association (now the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association). She leaves behind a legacy of inventions that are still used today!



By Jackie Nester, Go! Staff Writer

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