miSci spotlights the work of African American scientists at GE in Schenectady

A man looks at a dripping experiment

Costel Danson was at one time the manager of GE’s polymer research division. (Courtesy miSci)

SCHENECTADY – The Museum of Innovation and Science (miSci) is spotlighting the stories of Black inventors and engineers who have made strides at General Electric over the past century.

The exhibit “African Americans at General Electric” includes 60 photographs, all from the museum’s archives, features scientists in the lab or coming together to work on historic initiatives. Visitors can get a glimpse into the lives of people such as Andrew Evwaraye, who first joined GE Research in 1970 to work with moon rocks.

A native of Nigeria, Evwaraye studied silicon and germanium, which are used to build computer chips. A little less than a decade after joining GE, he returned to Nigeria and founded the school of physical sciences at the University of Port Harcourt.

“It’s amazing how not all of them stayed at GE,” said Chris Hunter, miSci’s vice president of collections and exhibitions. Like Evwaraye, some left for jobs at the National Science Foundation or to create engineering departments around the world.

“[They were] taking the experience they gained here and helping to spread it to future generations,” Hunter said.

The idea for the exhibition — which was done in collaboration with Milton Evans and Kenneth Evans, the former a longtime GE scientist — began years ago with a project on which miSci partnered with Union College.

“Right as the pandemic was starting we’d worked on a smaller version of this with some students at the Union College Black Student Union,” Hunter said. “Three years later, [we’ve got] a little more knowledge of what’s in the collection, and we wanted to honor these great scientists and engineers.”

One such scientist was Lewis Latimer (1848-1928), who was the only Black member of the Edison Pioneers, an organization of employees and retirees who worked with Thomas Edison. During his career, Latimer helped fine-tune Edison’s incandescent lamp and make it a successful commercial product.

A portrait dated 1900 shows a stoic and spectacled Latimer. Nearby is a portrait of Wendell King, the second Black student to enroll at Union.

“He grew up over in Lansingburgh, and by the time he was in high school he was out giving public lectures on radio and how to build radios, and was one of the leaders of the amateur radio club in Troy,” Hunter said.

But when GE hired him as a drill press operator in 1917, thousands of machinists protested and walked out, demanding that King be fired. The strike lasted eight days, and though GE did not fire King the company did remove him from his position on the drill press.

King, who was already well-known in Schenectady for his radio expertise, went on to become a radio engineer and set up stations around Erie, Pennsylvania.

Women scientists are also featured in the exhibit, including Frances Grant (1932-2016), who was a technical writer at Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory. One black-and-white photo shows her smiling, pen in hand, with several binders laid out across the table in front of her.

“Her daughter [Christine] went through the GE Minority Engineering Program and became a chemical engineering professor, and was actually the president of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. She would be the gold-star pupil of the GE program,” Hunter said.

Most of the photos in the exhibit, which opened last month, haven’t been shown at the museum. Hunter culled the 60 from approximately 400 in the museum’s collection. During the process, he discovered several scientists he hadn’t previously been aware of, including Costel Denson.

Born in 1934, he was the first Black student to graduate from Lehigh University and went on to get his doctorate at the University of Utah. At GE, Denson eventually became manager of the polymer research division, and after leaving the company he joined the engineering department of the University of Delaware.

“[He] became a well-respected nationwide leader,” Hunter said.

Beyond photographs, the exhibit also features an early example of an Edison lamp, a patent and memorabilia from GE scientists.

The exhibit will be on view through May 8. For information, visit misci.org.

Categories: Life and Arts, News, News, Schenectady, Schenectady County

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