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Beatrice Alice Hicks

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Beatrice Alice Hicks

Born in Orange, New Jersey in 1919, Beatrice Hicks displayed an affinity for and aptitude in math, science, and engineering from an early age. By the age of 13, Hicks told her father, himself an engineer, that she too wanted to pursue a career in engineering. After graduating from Orange High School in 1935, she enrolled in Newark College of Engineering, later renamed the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). In 1939, she received her B.S. in chemical engineering, and stayed on at the school as a research assistant for three years after graduation.

With the onset of U.S. involvement in World War II, numerous engineering jobs were left vacant by men leaving for military service, providing Hicks-and many of her female peers-career opportunities previously withheld from women. In 1942, she became the first female engineer employed by Western Electric, a subsidiary of Bell Telephone, where she worked on long-distance telephone technology. She also developed a crystal oscillator, which generated radio frequencies, a technology utilized in aircraft communications. While working for Western Electric, she enrolled in electrical engineering graduate courses at Columbia University, and later received a Master´s degree in physics from Stevens Institute of Technology in 1949.

She left Western Electric in 1945 to work as a consultant, but by the following year, her career would take another turn when her father died and she assumed several consecutive leadership roles in the family business, the Newark Controls Company. Initially serving as vice president and chief engineer, Hicks developed environmental sensors for heating and cooling systems, and became president of the company in 1955. Much of this technology would later be utilized by the U.S. space program. During this time, while pursuing a Master´s degree and running her father´s company, Hicks also got married in 1948, to Rodney Duane Chipp, also an engineer.

Her own experiences exposed Hicks to the dearth of other women in the science and engineering professions, and the lack of encouragement women received to pursue such careers, leading her to co-found the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) in 1950. She served as the Society´s first president, from 1950 to 1952. In the year of its founding, the Society consisted of just 60 members; today, its membership exceeds 16,000. Hicks was also a lifelong member of IEEE and its predecessor IRE. She joined as a student member in 1942, rising gradually to the level of senior member from 1957.

In recognition of her accomplishments, Hicks was awarded a number of honorary doctorates, from Hobart and William Smith College in 1958, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in 1965 (the first woman to receive the honor), and in 1978, Stevens Institute of Technology and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Her numerous other awards include the Mademoiselle magazine Outstanding Woman of the Year in Business (1952) and the SWE Achievement Award (1963). Hicks, who died in 1979, also held memberships in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).