What do super-soaker water guns, wheelie bins, and telephone cables have in common?
Well, firstly these are all products that are used by millions of people across the globe every day.
Secondly, these are all products that were originally developed by Black inventors and designers.
October is Black History Month in the UK. Here at ENL Group, we believe this is an opportunity to celebrate some of the often-overlooked black pioneers who have helped to shape the plastics industry across the world.
What is Black History Month?
Black History Month takes place every October in the UK. It shines a spotlight on the contribution of Black individuals and communities to celebrate the contribution that they have made to society and culture. In the past, this contribution was not always recognised.
The event was the brainchild of a Virginian called Carter G. Woodson, born in 1875 as the son of former slaves. Woodson worked throughout his life to promote Black history in schools – sending out the first press release announcing Black History Month in 1926. The event was first recognised by the US government in 1976 and was first celebrated in the UK in 1987.
It is now an established part of the school curriculum in the UK, the US, and in countries around the world.
Black Plastic Pioneers
Plastics is a relatively modern industry, with products like Bakelite only being discovered early in the 20th Century. The industrial production of plastics did not really begin in earnest until the 1930s. This means that many innovations in the industry have taken place during a time when social change was changing the opportunities available for Black inventors, scientists, and businessmen.
However, these pioneers still had to overcome prejudice and other barriers in order to succeed. This Black History Month, here at ENL we think it is right to recognise and celebrate the contribution of four key Black pioneers from our industry.
Walter Lincoln Hawkins (1911-1992)
Walter L. Hawkins was an African American pioneer in the development and use of polymers.
In 1942, he become the first Black person to join the technical staff of Bell Laboratories, charged with developing a cheap domestic alternative to rubber to help the war effort. This led to Hawkins contributing to the development of rubber made from petroleum stock.
Following the war, his focus turned to developing new and improved insulation for telephone cables.
In 1956, Hawkins was involved in the invention of a plastic coating that could cope with a wide range of temperatures without becoming brittle. It was inexpensive, and flexible, and could last for up to 70 years. This invention was the key factor in allowing the expansion of telephone wires across America, connecting that vast nation.
This coating became patented, one of 18 patents secured by Hawkins over the course of his career.
Bettye Washington Greene (1935 – 1995)
Bettye Washington Greene was an American industrial research chemist who led research into latex coatings and polymers. In fact, Greene was the first African American woman Ph.D. chemist to work in a professional role at the Dow Chemical Company.
Greene was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and attended segregated schools before attending Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and then Wayne State University where she earned her Ph.D.
Greene was a true pioneer in the early work around latex, leading to the award of several patents for latex modifications – one of which led to the development of latex coated sticky tape.
Lonnie Johnson (1949 – Present)
You might not have heard of Lonnie Johnson, but if you have had young children, you may well have fallen victim to his most famous invention – the Super Soaker water pistol. This is a product that is now a staple of summer days in the garden.
Johnson’s background was not in toy manufacture but in high-end engineering. In fact he was an aerospace engineer who worked for the US Air Force, before working for NASA in their world-leading Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Whilst he was in the Air Force, Johnson worked on developing a heat pump, and his research led him to develop a safe, pressurised water gun made of PVC pipe, plexiglass and an empty drinks bottle.
These are very humble origins for a product that has now sold over 200 million units and earned over $1 billion in sales.
The Super Soaker has been awarded a place in the US National Toy Hall of Fame, and Johnson himself was inducted into the Inventors’ Hall of Fame in 2015.
Charles Harrison (1931-2018)
Next time you wheel your bin to the curb-side, take a moment to think about Charles Harrison, the first African American executive to work at Sears Roebuck, in 1961.
As part of his work, he designed literally hundreds of consumer products, including sewing machines and the View-Master slide viewer. However, he is possibly best remembered for developing the first plastic refuse bins, replacing the heavier metal bins that preceded them. He was also the first man to add wheels, and the wheelie bin was born.
In 2008 the National Design Museum gave Harrison a Lifetime Achievement Award “in recognition of an individual who has made a profound, long-term contribution to contemporary design practice.”
Plastics and Diversity
ENL Group is committed to ensuring that we have a workforce that reflects the diversity of the UK and which gives everyone the opportunity to contribute. We also know that, as part of the UK manufacturing sector, there is still work to do to improve diversity within our sector.
A recent report from Make UK on diversity in UK manufacturing shows how much more we need to do. That report shows that ethnic minorities only make up 4% of board positions, occupy just 5% of professional engineering roles, and take up only 4% of apprenticeship opportunities. This is something that everyone involved in UK manufacturing has a responsibility to help change.
Improving representation is not just the fair and right thing to do. It is also the best thing for businesses. There have been repeated studies that demonstrate that diverse teams are more effective when it comes to delivering for businesses. A Harvard Business Review report shows that diverse teams are better when it comes to problem-solving and overall performance.
Here at ENL Group, we will continue to focus on ensuring that we have a skilled, modern, and diverse workforce to help us meet the changing needs of customers and to serve markets across the world.
About ENL Group
ENL Group is based in Portsmouth, UK and Veľké Kostoľany, Slovakia. Established in 1958, we have been servicing UK-based and European companies for decades. Working with a secure supply chain, ENL provides quality components for quality-driven customers – with full certification for all of our products and quality checking at every stage.
Operating 24/7, we design, manufacture and deliver critical components for our customers across the UK and Europe.
Contact Us for more information about ENL and how we can help your business.