Olive Wetzel Dennis was born in Thurlow, Pennsylvania in 1885 and when she was aged 6 the family moved to Baltimore, Maryland, US. When she was a small child, her parents gave her dolls to play with, but her engineering ability was evident at an early age.
She built houses and designed furniture for the dolls instead of sewing clothes for them. At the age of 10, her father provided her with a tool set of her own, as he was tired of his daughter damaging his woodworking equipment, doing things like building toys for her brother, including a model streetcar with trolley poles and reversible seats.
After finishing secondary education at Western High School, she enrolled at Goucher College in Baltimore in 1908, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree, followed by a master’s degree in mathematics from Columbia University the next year.
Olive then taught at a Washington technical high school for 10 years but, as she said, ‘the idea of civil engineering just wouldn’t leave me’.
Chasing the dream
She went to two summer sessions of engineering school at the University of Wisconsin, and subsequently obtained a degree in civil engineering from Cornell University in 1920, completing it in just one year, rather than two. In doing so, Olive became only the second woman to obtain a civil engineering degree from the institution.
It is reported that, as she walked up to receive her testamur at her graduation, a man in the audience yelled out, ‘What the heck can a woman do in engineering?’ It was not surprising then, that being a woman, she found it difficult to find employment as an engineer.
After she was engaged by Baltimore and Ohio (B & O) Railroad, she said,
‘There is no reason why a woman can’t be an engineer simply because no other woman has ever been one. A woman can accomplish anything if she tries hard enough.’
Baltimore and Ohio
Her appointment as a draftsman in the engineering department for the B & O was announced under the newspaper headline, ‘Woman Civil Engineer Enjoys Technical Work’. With respect to her role in designing railway bridges in rural areas, she remarked,
‘I helped lay out the railway line at Ithaca last December and I am rather anxious to get out on the road again.’
Soon after starting her job, she designed her first railroad bridge, in Painsville, Ohio.
The following year, in 1921, she approached Daniel Willard, the president of B & O, pointing out that, as half of the railway’s passengers were women, the task of engineering upgrades in service would be handled best by a female engineer.
A woman’s touch
Her gender in this case became an asset rather than a liability. A result of that meeting was that Olive was told ‘to get ideas that would make women want to travel on our line’. She was appointed to a new role, which involved developing ideas to smooth the journey, becoming the first ‘Engineer of Service’.
She was also the first female member of the American Railway Engineering Association.
To improve the experience of passengers, Olive had to have the customer experience herself. So, for the next few years, she spent much of her time on trains.
It is said that she would take a B & O train from the beginning to the end of the line, alight and then get on a train in the opposite direction. She also compared the B & O experience with that of rival train companies.
She was very ‘hands-on’, averaging over 50,000 miles (80,500 km) per year on trains, while sometimes sitting up all day testing how effective the seat designs were. She also tested mattresses. In the course of her career her journeys totalled up to a half a million miles (approximately 850,000 km).
As the supervisor of passenger car design and service, Olive had a wide-ranging influence in the area of creature comforts, and many of her innovations remain in use today. One of the first changes she made was to the timetable, which she considered overly complex.
She made it her business to simplify it, making it easier for passengers to understand it. At the time of taking up her role, trains were smelly, dirty and most unattractive for passengers and she set about changing all that.
Her innovations included designing the railroad’s famous blue and white Colonial dining car china with scenic locations in the centre and historic trains around the edges. She also introduced larger dressing rooms with paper towels, liquid soap and disposable cups.
Although her initial focus was on female passengers, she soon realised that all passengers wanted improvements. After long nights travelling coach class, she introduced and helped design reclining seats, dimmable overhead lights and all-night onboard lunch counters serving sandwiches and coffee.
Other improvements were easy-to-clean upholstery, dining car configurations that removed the need for high chairs for children, and shorter seats so that shorter people, including women, could comfortably rest their feet on the floor.
Olive also suggested that there should be stewardesses, nurses, and other helpers on board to provide services when required. She invented, and held the patent for, the ‘Dennis ventilator’, which enabled the windows of passenger cars to be controlled by passengers.
She was later an advocate of air-conditioned compartments and, in 1931, B & O introduced the world’s first completely air-conditioned train. The ‘crowning glory of her career’, she said, was when B & O put her in charge of designing an entire train, the Cincinnatian, which incorporated all of her innovations and improvements. It was put into service in 1947.
An instigator of widespread change
In the years that followed, other rail carriers followed suit, as well as bus companies and airlines, which had to upgrade their level of comfort to compete with the railroads.
In 1940, Olive was named by the Women’s Centennial Congress as one of America’s ‘100 outstanding career women’ and, during the Second World War, she served as a consultant for the federal Office of Defense Transportation, while maintaining her position as Engineer of Service for over 30 years.
She was one of the most remarkable women in railroad industry history and did not let her gender stand in the way of advancement, stating,
‘No matter how successful a business may seem to be, it can gain even greater success if it gives consideration to the woman’s viewpoint.’
Retirement and later life
Olive retired in 1951 and was quoted in a New York Times article saying,
‘sometimes, my assignments would require my riding with the engineer of a locomotive during speed and safety checks. But I never took advantage of being a woman.’
Nevertheless, as a woman she was not always accepted by the executives of other lines, but her influence as a woman and technical engineer left a lasting impression on the travel industry nationwide.
Never marrying, Olive Dennis passed away on 5 November 1957 in Baltimore at the age of 71. Apart from her railroad interests, her hobbies included cryptology and solving puzzles and she regularly spoke to women’s groups about her life and career, encouraging women to follow their chosen path.
As was written of her some 40 years after her death, she was the ‘Lady Engineer’ who ‘took the pain out of the train’.
John S. Croucher is a Professor of Management, Macquarie University, Sydney. He has published over 130 research papers and 30 books, and for 8 years was a television presenter on football. Women of Science is his latest book, published on 15 December by Amberley Publishing.