Olive Dennis Trailblazer

Olive Dennis

Born: November 20, 1885

Died: November 5, 1957

Education: Goucher College, Columbia University, and Cornell University

Known for: Improving the nature of railway travel

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"Lady Engineer" that made train travel comfortable

Olive Dennis was the first female member of the American Railway Engineering Association and was a pioneer in customer service.

Olive Wetzel Dennis was born in November of 1885. As a child, she was always building and tinkering with things. When she was 10, her father gave her a set of tools and she built a scale model of a streetcar for her younger brother – complete with seats that turn over and steps that move up and down.

She earned a bachelor's degree from Goucher College in Maryland and a master's degree in mathematics from Columbia University and then taught high school math for ten years. But she never gave up the idea of becoming an engineer. So she went to back to school and became the second woman to graduate from Cornell University with a master's degree in civil engineering.

Dennis went to work in the engineering department of the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad.  She started as a draftsman, building bridges in rural Ohio. She boasted:

“I helped lay out the railroad line at Ithaca last December and I am rather anxious to get out on the road again. There is no reason that a woman can’t be an engineer simply because no other woman has ever been one. A woman can accomplish anything if she tries hard enough!”

Soon, Dennis was promoted to “Engineer of Service”, a position the company created for her. Her role was to develop ways to improve the passenger service on trains so that they could better compete with cars and city busses that were starting to become more common in the 1920's. At least one historian describes her as the first service engineer in the country.

Ruth Dennis points out improvements to a railrad buffet car

Olive Dennis in 1947, suggesting improvements to a Baltimore and Ohio Railroad buffet car. Image from B&O Railroad Museum; found in online article about the 'Lady Engineer'

For the next 30 years, Olive contributed to passenger comfort in various ways. She invented and held the patent for the Dennis ventilator, which was in the windows of certain cars and could be controlled by passengers. She also played a major role in air-conditioning the coaches, dimming overhead lights, reclining individual seats, and creating stain-resistant upholstery.  It's estimated that she traveled between a quater and a half a million miles on trains, identifying and solving passenger problems along the way.

No details were too small. She worked out solutions that ranged is scope from the size of dressing rooms to the dishes offered on dining car menus.  The New York Times reported that “She would rather puzzle over the arrangement of doors and cabinets to avoid blocked passages or detect flaws in the construction of a Pullman berth than compose a color scheme for a new club car,” but she could do both.  In the mid-1940s, she helped design an entire state-of-the-art luxury passenger train - including a streamlined “shroud”, which covered the front of the locomotive and made it easier for mechanics to repair the engine!

Olive Dennis became the first female member of the American Railway Engineering Association. Throughout her life she spoke to groups about her life and career, encouraging other women to pursue their own interests. She never felt gender stood in the way of advancement. She is credited with saying:

“No matter how successful a business may seem to be, it can gain even greater success if it gives consideration to the woman's viewpoint.”


Photo credits:
Portrait retrieved from Wikipedia, "Olive Dennis as a student at Gaucher College, class of 1908".