The Lady Engineer: Olive D. Wetzel Dennis

The Lady Engineer: Olive D. Wetzel Dennis

Another fearless female, though not in my family tree.  Olive Wetzel Dennis was a university graduate and became the first female engineer for B&O Railroad.  This is her story.

Olive D. Wetzel Dennis was born in 20 Nov 1885 (some sources have her born in 1895) and died in 1957. She held degrees in science and mathematics and earned masters degrees in science and astronomy. She was a graduate of Cornell University being only the second woman to earn a civil engineering degree.Olive started out as a draftsman in 1920 and was promoted to engineer of service in 1921. Olive became the first female engineer for the B&O Railroad, serving as a research engineer with B&O for over 30 years. She was also the first female member of the American Railway Engineers Organization.

Olive is be credited with many achievements. She helped revolutionize railroad travel at a time when the automobile was taking over. Passengers had many complaints about traveling by train. Window ventilators and screens kept smoke and grime from the smokestack away from the train cars, but they made it difficult for passengers to see outside the train. Olive did away with the screens. In 1928, she earned the patent for her own ventilation system, the Dennis Ventilator, which put the control of air flow in the passengers’ hands–keeping the air fresh but allowing them to see the beautiful landscape that passed by their windows.

Olive added other achievements to her list. She designed coach car lunch counters, air conditioning, and sleeper service. She was involved in technology for fuel efficient engines as well. She was also instrumental in linking airplane and train schedules to make traveling easier for passengers. In 1940, the Women’s Centennial Congress named Olive as one of the 100 outstanding career women in the US.

So, the next time you travel by train or listen to the railroad stories of an older relative, tip your hat to the woman known as the Lady Engineer. Her innovations revolutionized railroad travel.

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