Lincoln Hawkins: Polyethylene cable

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Since childhood, Lincoln Hawkins had a fascination about how things worked, but it wasn't until high school that he realized one could actually have a career that focused on mechanical tinkering.

Lincoln Hawkins

Hawkins (Image source: Wikipedia)

His inspiration to pursue a life in science, and ultimately the telecom industry, came from his physics teacher at Washington D.C.'s Dunbar High School, who was rewarded with a new car every year by a company that used his self-starter mechanism for their vehicles.

Hawkins' passion for how things worked enabled him to great solve a perplexing problem that existed in the telecom industry at that time: how to cost-effectively insulate telephone cables.  

When Hawkins joined Bell Labs in 1942, it was at the height of World War II and the Japanese had blocked America's rubber supply from Southeast Asia. One of the breakthroughs that Hawkins helped drive was creating a rubber substitute made from petroleum stock.

When the war ended in 1945, Hawkins started work on a project to improve telephone cable insulation. Up until that time, long-distance underground and submarine cables were protected with fiber wrapped in lead sheathing, materials that were very expensive. While plastic was one option, the problem was that it could not handle the rigors of the outdoor environment. Hawkins and Vincent Lanza invented a plastic coating that was immune to temperature changes, but cost less than lead. This innovation, in part, also enabled telephone service to be deployed in hard-to-reach rural areas and helped move toward universal telephone service.

Later in his career, Hawkins was appointed as the assistant director of Bell Labs' chemical research lab in 1974. With much of his career focused on polymers, particularly plastics, he helped develop new products and came up with methods to make plastic last longer and how to recycle it.  

Like fellow honoree James West, Hawkins--the first African American to work at Bell Labs—was a champion of driving diversity in the telecom and education sectors with a particular focus on science and engineering.

After retiring from Bell Labs in 1976 following a 34-year career, he spent his time as an advocate for college students to enter the science and engineering fields. During that time he served in two significant education programs for minority and African-American students. He became the first chairman of Project SEED (Support of the Educationally & Economically Disadvantaged), an American Chemical Society program designed to promote science careers for minority students, and he helped to set up a program at Bell Labs and AT&T (NYSE: T) to recruit African-American scientists and engineers.