At a time when less than 1% of engineers employed in the United States were women, Beatrice Hicks forged her own path and then helped to usher in the next generations of engineering women. Inspired by the Empire State Building and the George Washington Bridge, she decided to become an engineer like her father.
Sharing this plan with her family at the age of 13 her parents didn’t discourage her idea, but they also didn’t encourage her and her teachers and classmates were discouraging, saying that her chosen path wasn’t fitting for a woman. Nonetheless she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Newark College of Engineering in 1939 as one of two women in her class. After graduation she spent three more years at the college as a research assistant studying the history of Edward Weston’s inventions.
Hired in 1942 by Western Electric, Hicks was the first woman to be employed by the company as an engineer and was responsible for designing and testing quartz crystal oscillators. Spending three years at Western Electric she joined her father’s metalworking firm after his death, serving as its chief engineer then vice president in charge of engineering. Ten years later she purchased control of Newark Controls Incorporated from her uncle and was made president of the company.
While at Newark Controls she designed and patented a gas density switch that would later be used in the U.S. space program including the moon landing mission. She developed an industry model for quality control procedures and was also a pioneer in the field of sensors that detected when devices where reaching their structural limits.
While earning her master’s degree from Stevens Institute she started meeting with other women working on the East coast of the U.S. as engineers, and the group decided to organize more formally and were incorporated as the Society of Women Engineers, electing Hicks to the role of their first president. This group has grown from an initial 60 members to over 35,000 striving to empower women to succeed and advance in the world of engineering.
Written by Angela Goad