By finding a way to stabilize the polymers used to coat communications cable, Lincoln Hawkins and his Bell Labs colleagues Vincent Lanza and Field Winslow helped make universal telephone service possible. In addition, the work enriched scientists’ understanding of the polyolefin stabilization process.
Until the 1940s, a lead-based coating was used to insulate telephone cables. The lead coating was expensive, and it was also too heavy to use in the multi-cable conduits needed to serve millions of people. Plastic coatings were tried, but quickly became brittle and would disintegrate when exposed to the elements. The team found a way to stabilize polyethylene and created a plastic cable insulation that could withstand changes in temperature and other environmental factors. The new coating greatly reduced the costs of building and maintaining modern telephone systems, and the use of lead, an environmental toxin, was eliminated.
Hawkins was also devoted to improving education and employment opportunities for minorities interested in pursuing careers in engineering and science, helping to establish the Bell Labs Summer Research Program for Minorities and Women. Born in Washington, D.C., Hawkins attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Howard University, and ultimately McGill University where he received his Ph.D. In 1942, he was the first African-American scientist hired by Bell Labs. In 1992, he was presented with the National Medal of Technology.