Who was Olive Dennis?
Olive Dennis was the first woman to become a member of the American Railway Engineering Association. One of the first women to obtain a Civil Engineering degree from Cornell University, she found it difficult to find a meaningful job after her graduation solely on the basis of her gender. She strived hard and eventually began working for the Baltimore and Ohio (B & O) Railroad. Since half of the railroad’s passengers were women, it was felt that a woman would be better suited to handle engineering upgrades in service. Thus Olive Dennis was made the railroad’s first "service engineer" and assigned the responsibility of improving passenger service. In a career spanning over three decades, she worked hard to make travelling as comfortable as possible for the passengers. A creative person with an innovative bent of mind, she implemented several new concepts including the railroad's famous blue and white Colonial dining car china. She also played a major role in making the seats more attractive and comfortable for the travelers. In addition, she suggested that there should be stewardesses, nurses, and other helpers on board to provide services when required. During the World War II, she served as a consultant for the federal Office of Defense Transportation.
Childhood & Early Life
Olive Wetzel Dennis was born on November 20, 1885, in Thurlow, Pennsylvania, and moved to Baltimore as a child. She developed an interest in engineering quite early on in life.
When she was little, her parents gave her dolls to play with. Displaying her engineering aptitude, she built houses and designed furniture for the dolls instead of sewing clothes for them as expected from a young girl. She also built toys for her brother, including a model streetcar with trolley poles and reversible seats.
She graduated from Western High School and enrolled at Goucher College from where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1908. She then went on to earn her master's degree in mathematics and astronomy from Columbia University.
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After completing her master’s, Olive Dennis embarked on a teaching career and taught mathematics in a Washington vocational school for ten years. Even while working as a teacher she maintained her love for civil engineering and attended two summer sessions of engineering school at the University of Wisconsin. Then she spent a full year at Cornell University and in 1920, she became only the second woman to obtain a Civil Engineering degree from Cornell.
Initially she faced problems in finding a job as employers were reluctant to appoint a woman engineer. Undaunted, the spirited woman kept trying and approached Daniel Willard, the President of the Baltimore and Ohio (B & O) Railroad and asked for a job.
She found appointment as a draftsman in the engineering department of B & O Railroad in September 1920. Her initial duty was to design bridges. The following year, the president of the railroad observed that since half of the railway's passengers were women, it would be a practical move to appoint a woman for improving the passenger service.
Thus Olive Dennis was promoted to the newly created position of "service engineer” in 1921. During her initial years, she travelled a lot in the trains, experiencing and observing the routine problems faced by the passengers.
One of the first changes she made was to the timetable which she felt was too needlessly complicated. She simplified it and made it easier for the passengers to consult it.
Over the course of her busy travelling schedule, she often sat up all night in day coaches to try out seats or test new mattresses. She found the seats to be uncomfortable and gave many suggestions for making them more convenient for the passengers.
She worked with the railroad for three decades over which she invented and held the patent for the Dennis ventilator which allowed fresh air to enter without causing a draft. She also implemented many other innovations which helped to attract more people to travel on trains and was an advocate for air-conditioning in the coaches, dimmer overhead lights and stain-resistant upholstery.
During World War II, she served as a consultant for the federal Office of Defense Transportation. She retired in 1951.
Olive Dennis was a pioneering genius in the railroad industry, one of the most remarkable women engineers of her time. Over the course of her three decade long career she made rail travel more comfortable for passengers with her innovations and was the inventor of the Dennis ventilator, which was in the windows of passenger cars and could be controlled by passengers.
Awards & Achievements
One of the very few women of her era to embark on an engineering career, she became the first woman to be admitted to the American Railway Engineering Association.
In 1940, Olive Dennis was named as one of the nation's 100 outstanding career women.
Personal Life & Legacy
Olive Dennis died on November 5, 1957, in Baltimore, Maryland, at the age of 71.