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Aileen Cavanagh - Pioneer Engineer


Aileen Cavanagh (1929 - 1992)
Aileen Cavanagh (1929 - 1992)

Aileen Cavanagh was born in New York City on 26 December 1929 into an Irish-American family, and raised in Boston, MA, with her two sisters and a brother. Her father managed concert artists and toured with the Polish pianist I. J. Paderewski. He was a musicologist with a deep perception into the Gaelic culture. Her mother worked in many different capacities, including typing, selling dresses, and working as a secretary. When Aileen was eight years old, her father was stricken with polio; he then became a watch repairman, working from home. He continued his interest in music. The Boston Symphony Orchestra performed several musical pieces he composed.

As a child, Aileen was an active member of what was then the New England Museum of Natural History’s Junior Explorers Club. It was here that she gave her first public speech, at the age of 12, on “How to Skin a Snake,” with a live demonstration. For this demonstration she made the dress she wore herself, and received her first “shoulder corsage” in honor of the event.

Beginning at the age of 14, she worked at a wide variety of jobs to provide carfare and other essentials as well as contribute to her college fund. She enjoyed athletics and participated in intramural sports such as field hockey, swimming, softball, and tennis. She was also a Girl Scout, achieving the rank of Senior Scout, and was elected President of the Senior Scout Council for Boston. She graduated from the Boston Girls’ Latin School in 1947. While she was in high school, a number of her teachers expected her to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, because of her math skills.

Instead, Aileen’s ambition was always to enter the medical profession, but because of the high cost of a medical degree, and discouraged because medicine was a male-dominated field, she went on to study physics. She entered Boston University (BU), Boston, MA, in the fall of 1947, because BU was less expensive than MIT and also was within walking distance of her home. Along with her studies, Aileen continued her interests in the Girl Scouts and sports. In her senior year shewas a teaching assistant for the General Physics Laboratory course. She graduated in 1951 with the A.B. degree in physics, with a minor in chemistry. In subsequent years she took graduate courses at Drexel Institute of Technology, Philadelphia, PA, (now Drexel University) and Northeastern University, Boston, MA.

Her first full-time engineering job was as a Junior Physicist at Tracelab, where she developed a device to measure radiation. After a short stint at Raytheon, she joined Bell Telephone Laboratories in October 1955. There she was placed on field assignment to MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, where she worked on the initial development, shakedown, and engineering evaluation of the SAGE System for Air Defense. Later, at Bell Labs, in Whippany, NJ, she continued this work on the operational SAGE System (see Fig. 2). She also worked on the development of future communications systems, particularly airborne systems using moving aircraft as microwave communications relay stations for long-haul communications circuits.

Like many women in the engineering field, she suffered discrimination. Her interests in the field of communications systems were not taken seriously. She was offered work in the mid-1960s in the field of computer programming, which was thought to be “appropriate for college women at Bell Laboratories.” There were only 5000women engineers in the United States at that time.

In July 1962, Aileen composed a biographical sketch of herself. In it she not only provided information concerning her professional career, but also included a personal profile. She noted her enjoyment of music, gardening, needlework, aviation, reading, and especially travel. She described herself as a member of the “do-it-yourself” school of action. Aileen wrote:

Has traveled on business and on all too brief vacations across the continental United States, and through Western Canada, Alaska, andWestern Europe—everywhere visiting people and the countryside. Holds a deep desire to see the rest of the world one day, and to visit among its people and their cultures.

She went on to write later in the biographical sketch:

Independent of mind, determined of spirit, devoid of fear, with a reserved manner born of shyness, and still torn by conflicting interest between the fields of sociology and technology. She rebels against social conformism for the sake of uniformity of thought; wages a constant battle against forced technical specialization for the sake of self-identification and ease of industrial occupational classification; and believes in the liberal education as an essential instrument of social development. She opines that specialized occupational training, when divorced from a liberal education, prepares people to command a salary in a competitive profit making business; but not to live in a world as a confident and responsible member of society.

During this time she purchased her first home in Whippany, NJ, and became active in community affairs. Aileen taught Sunday school and was Vice President of the Morris County Young Democrats. She was also active in the IEEE and its Engineering Management Society, as well as serving as President of the Society of Women’s Engineers in 1963–1964.

She left Bell Labs in 1967 and joined the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, in Trenton, NJ. There she was the Chief of the Bureau of Research and Analysis, Division of Local Finance. Aileen initiated technical and management assistance programs, and helped to regionalize local utilities and authorities. She also helped local governments utilize computer technology.

She developed, implemented, and operated, for a period of five years, a computer-based management information system for use as a statewide program-planning and policy-analysis tool. It consolidated into a single database the operational, social, and financial statistics used or generated by state and local governments (including the United States Census, municipal and county budgets and audit reports, and demographic and planning information used and generated at state and local levels of government). The system produced the Annual Report of the Fiscal and Operation Condition of New Jersey Counties and Municipalities, verified local government audits, and performed computations requested by the legislature and other executive departments. During this time, she also lectured to statewide and public interest organizations on new technologies that they might utilize. She also lectured at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, on municipal management and finance.

In 1972, Aileen moved back to Massachusetts, where she was self-employed as a consultant and college instructor. Her areas of expertise were strategic planning, technology assessment, financial management, and information systems. She taught management courses at Bentley College, Waltham, MA; the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and Northeastern University. She also earned the M.S. degree in Business Administration from the University of Massachusetts in 1978.

In 1982, she joined MITRE Corporation and returned to her field of engineering. As a member of the technical staff, she performed engineering studies and monitored contractor efforts related to the acquisitions of Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) aircraft for Saudi Arabia. From 1986 to 1988, Aileen again became a consultant working for small firms and government agencies in eastern Massachusetts that specialized in military contracts, including the United States Air Force Electronic Systems Division.

In 1988 she relocated to Atlanta, GA, and joined Horizons Technology, Inc. as a Senior Scientist. There she supported Horizons’ acquisition management and source selection for the Special Operations Forces (SOF) C-130 and C-141 aircrafts. She remained active in the IEEE, serving as President of the IEEE Engineering Management Society in 1990. She also served on various IEEE committees and boards.

Aileen published more than 30 technical and management- related articles in various publications. She also made presentations to professional organizations. She particularly enjoyed giving talks at junior and senior high schools about engineering and its career opportunities.

In her July 1962 biographical sketch, she wrote:

When asked about the hopes for the future, her answer is she’ll travel where the wind takes her—with the world for her backyard, the sky for her umbrella, opportunity for her guide, and a happy heart her protector. Of course she’s interested in marriage, which she looks upon as a religious sacrament accompanied by a serious and permanent responsibility for the family which would be its goa1 and its reward. She realistically states that all women must develop for themselves the capability to earn an adequate living, and points out that most women who work do so out of economic or social necessity, not out of selfish self-indulgence.

She would attain her desire to see the world, traveling to Eastern and Western Europe, the former Soviet Union, Central and Southeast Asia,West Africa, and Australasia. Aileen passed away on 27 September 1992 in Atlanta. She was survived by her two sisters and a brother, 16 nieces and nephews, and 13 grandnieces and grandnephews.

This article appears courtesy of Mary Ann Hoffman and the IEEE History Centre, New Brunswick, NJ