In 1942, Walter Lincoln Hawkins became the first African-American to join the technical staff at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories. Hawkins helped make universal telephone service possible by developing a durable plastic to cover telephone wires– a new material that was lightweight and less expensive than the lead sheathing used at that time.
Scientists had known that lightweight plastics would be a good alternative, but common plastics did not last long outdoors. Hawkins and Vincent Lanza invented a plastic coating that could withstand extreme fluctuations in temperature and last up to seventy years. The new coating saved billions of dollars and enabled the expansion of telephone service around the world, and continues to be used today.
Hawkins, who worked at Bell Labs for 34 years, became assistant director of their chemical research lab in 1974. He became an expert, not only in making plastics last longer, but in recycling these seemingly indestructible products. By the end of his career, Hawkins had received 18 U.S. and 129 foreign patents.
By Jen Santisi