Beatrice Hicks: Trailblazing Engineer
National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Beatrice Hicks, co-founder of the Society of Women Engineers, created the gas density sensor that enabled the development of many advanced technologies and played a key role in making space travel possible.
In celebration of Space Exploration Day, we invite you to learn more about Hicks’ essential contribution to spaceflight!
Taking a Bold Path Into Engineering
Born on Jan. 2, 1919, in Orange, New Jersey, Hicks demonstrated a gift for mathematics, science and engineering from an early age. Inspired by triumphs in engineering like the Empire State Building and George Washington Bridge, at age 13 she told her father she wanted to follow in his footsteps and become an engineer.
Her goal was an unusual one at the time, when it was considered socially unacceptable for a woman to enter such a field. Classmates and teachers alike tried to dissuade her from pursuing an engineering career.
Hicks persevered and graduated from the Newark College of Engineering (now New Jersey Institute of Technology) in 1939. She was one of only two women from a class of 900. Following a three-year stint serving as a research assistant at the same college, she landed a job working for Western Electric, becoming the first woman engineer in the company’s history. While there, she was tasked with developing technology used in telephone and aircraft communication.
In 1949, she would go on to earn a master’s degree in physics from Stevens Institute of Technology.
Developing the Gas Density Sensor
Hicks began working at her father’s business manufacturing environmental sensing equipment, Newark Controls Co. Following his passing in 1946, she became vice president and director of engineering. In 1955, she became president and director of engineering for the company.
At Newark Controls, she developed a gas density sensor for devices that used gas-phase materials as fuels or insulators. The central innovation of the gas sensor technology, as described in U.S. Patent No. 3,046,369, is that this device could be used to detect dangerous levels of electrical insulating gas. Crucially, this device was able to sense the actual amount of gas, instead of just the pressure produced by the gas, in a container over a wide range of pressures and temperatures.
Hicks’ gas density sensor would prove critical to the success of the Apollo moon missions and was used in the ignition systems of Saturn V rockets. Additionally, the sensor was also used on Boeing 707 aircraft within antenna couplers for long-range communications, and for monitoring the status of stored nuclear weapons.
Among her many accomplishments, Hicks also developed other sensors for fuel levels, pressure and flow rates for liquids and gasses. These included a sensor that set off an alarm when a plane, missile or rocket exceeded a speed at which the structural components could maintain their integrity.
Creating a Legacy as a Pioneering Force
Throughout her life and professional career, Hicks worked to promote the interests of women engineers. To that end, in 1950, she co-founded the Society of Women Engineers and served as the organization’s president from 1950-52.
Among the many awards and accolades she received include honorary doctorate degrees from Hobart and William Smith College in 1958 and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1965.
Hicks was also a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and National Society of Professional Engineers, and in 1978 she was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.
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