She took the pain out of the train Innovator: One of the first women to earn a Cornell engineering degree, Olive Dennis helped make rail travel less complicated and more comfortable.

Remember When

November 23, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Olive W. Dennis, whose work as a research engineer for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad made railroad travel vastly more comfortable for passengers, occupied a unique position in the railroad industry for more than 30 years.

As supervisor of passenger car design and service, Dennis had wide-ranging influence in the area of creature comforts, and many of her innovations remain in use today. They include designing the railroad's famous blue and white Colonial dining car china.

For passenger comfort

She was an advocate of air-conditioned coaches and individual reclining seats covered in fade-resistant upholstery in a variety of colors.

Comfortable headrests and linen seat backs, later replaced by plastic models which could be cleaned easily with a cloth rather than laundered, made seats more attractive and comfortable.

She suggested lower coach seats so shorter passengers' feet wouldn't dangle -- as well as stewardesses, nurses, maid service, bassinets for babies and babies' bottle warmers. Her suggestion of full-length mirrors made it easier for men and women to comb their hair.

In 1926, she designed the fleet of B&O motor buses that picked up and delivered passengers trainside to and from the Jersey City, N.J., terminal to Manhattan.

"For 26 years she has been hunting ways -- and designing devices -- to make railroad travel easier, cleaner, more comfortable, in every way pleasanter for the passenger," said The Sun in 1947.

Born in Thurlow, Pa., she moved to Baltimore as a child, where her interest in engineering began in earnest.

While her parents gave her dolls, she was more interested in constructing doll houses and furniture than sewing doll clothes. When she was 10, she built her brother a model streetcar with trolley poles and reversible seats.

A graduate of Western High School, she earned a bachelor's degree from Goucher College in 1908. She later earned a master's degree in mathematics and astronomy from Columbia University and taught math in a Washington vocational school.

"However," she told The Sun, "the idea of civil engineering just wouldn't leave me, so I went to two summer sessions of engineering school at the University of Wisconsin, and finally spent a full year at Cornell University and got my civil engineering degree."

The second woman to earn an engineering degree from Cornell, she was the first woman to be elected to the American Railway Engineering Association in 1923, and was for many years the only woman graduate civil engineer in Baltimore.

In 1920, she went to Daniel Willard, the B&O president, and asked for an engineering job. She found that there were two obstacles standing in her way: "One simply that I was a woman. The second was no experience," she told the newspaper.

It was Willard's desire to have someone practical look at railroad service that got Dennis promoted from her job as a draftsman in the bridge department.

"I was told to get ideas that would make women want to travel on our line. After all, if women went on it, men would follow," she said.

She spent her first two years riding the B&O's trains as an ordinary traveler absorbing all the normal obstacles and discomfort that greeted passengers.

The first thing she attacked were the cumbersome and needlessly complicated timetables, which she simplified.

Dennis traveled an average of 50,000 miles a year, and her work often included sitting up all night in day coaches trying out seats or testing new mattresses aboard Pullman cars.

Lightened menus

She tasted and evaluated dining car food, which led to the development of lighter menus.

"I also found that I could not eat those consistently heavy meals served in dining cars. I suggested that lighter menus containing many a la carte specialties and salads be set up. Not only do the women go for these, but many men prefer to order the lighter dishes instead of the usual heavy meal," she told The Sun in 1947.

She designed and patented an individually operated ventilator that was placed in each window and allowed fresh air to enter without causing a draft.

After studying refrigerator cars in 1928, she worked with railroad mechanical personnel in the development of air conditioning that resulted in the B&O's first air-conditioned trains in 1930.

Named in 1940 as one of the nation's 100 outstanding career women, Dennis enjoyed cryptology and puzzles away from her railroad work.

She retired in 1951 and died in Baltimore in 1957.

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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