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Friends of the Goucher Library Presents: 'Executive Influence: Olive Wetzel Dennis'

Release date: April 17, 2012

The Friends of the Goucher Library presents Sharon Beischer Harwood '65, who will come to the college on Tuesday, April 17, at 7 p.m. to speak about the work of Olive Wetzel Dennis, the first woman civil engineer on the B&O Railroad.

The free public talk, titled "Executive Influence: Olive Wetzel Dennis," will be held in the Batza Room of Goucher's Athenaeum. Tickets must be reserved in advance by logging on to www.goucher.edu/tickets or by calling 410-337-6333. Light refreshments will be served after the presentation.

For more information, contact Randi Kennedy, assistant to the college librarian, at Randalynn.kennedy@goucher.edu or 410-337-6362.

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

A graduate of Western High School in Baltimore, 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, DC, vocational school.

She was the second woman to earn an engineering degree from Cornell and the first woman to be elected to the American Railway Engineering Association in 1923. For many years, Dennis was the only female civil engineer in Baltimore.

In 1920, she went to Daniel Willard, the B&O president, and asked for an engineering job. Willard wanted to have someone practical look at railroad service, and so Dennis was promoted from her job as a draftsman in the bridge department. She spent her first two years riding the B&O's trains as an ordinary traveler, absorbing all the normal obstacles and discomfort that affected passengers.

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

She tasted and evaluated dining car food, which led to the development of lighter menus. 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, Dennis worked with railroad mechanical personnel to develop air conditioning, which resulted in the B&O's first air-conditioned trains in 1930. She also was involved in technology for fuel-efficient engines and was instrumental in linking airplane and train schedules to make traveling easier for passengers.

In 1940, the Women's Centennial Congress named Dennis as one of the 100 outstanding career women in the United States. She retired in 1951 and died in Baltimore in 1957.