Evolution of Gas Sensors: Beatrice Hicks creates device to measure gas in critical industrial applications

Beatrice Hicks. From the National Inventors Hall of Fame website.

Gas detecting devices are useful for a wide range of industries and predictions are mixed on the future of the gas detector market, although most expect it to grow quickly. A report from MarketsandMarkets pegs the global market for gas sensors at $1.01 billion by 2022, while a recent Radiant Insights report expects the global gas sensor market to exceed $2.5 billion by 2020. In miniaturized gas sensors alone patent filings continue to expand with more than 1,050 patent families being invented in the 40 years leading up to October 2016.

Most homes and residential buildings are outfitted with gas sensors like carbon monoxide detectors which are designed to detect dangerous levels of a poisonous gas. In industrial settings, especially those where pressurized gas is used, sophisticated gas sensors are coupled with control systems to ensure that combustible or toxic gases don’t escape into an uncontrolled environment. There are many types of gas sensors which are designed to measure gases in various ways using electrochemical, photoionization or infrared imaging techniques, among others.

This Monday, July 24th, marks the 55th anniversary of the issue of a seminal patent in the field of gas sensor devices. The inventor, Beatrice Hicks, is both a 2017 inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame as well as one of America’s truly trailblazing women engineers, one of the first to enter the field of technological development in the mid-20th century. Hicks would go on to become instrumental in the founding of the Society of Women Engineers and her story is a wonderful reminder of the power of both a good education and the ability to believe in one’s self.


Early Gas Detectors: Canaries in the Coal Mine

Throughout human history, air pollution and civilization have tended to walk forward hand-in-hand. A 1983 article published by Science discussed evidence of indoor pollution from early human caves caused by improper ventilation of fires. The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century went a long way in contributing to high levels of pollution in urban areas which, a century later, sparks the development of political activism on environmental issues in the United States and across the world.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, measuring gas levels in the workplace was a matter of life and death for coal miners. The canary in the coal mine is not just a proverb but rather a tool used by miners to detect levels of carbon monoxide or other gases before they could cause great physical harm to humans. In British coal mines, the canary was used as a means for detecting dangerous gas until electronic sensor technology replaced them in 1986.

Decades before that, on January 2nd, 1919, Beatrice Hicks was born in the town of Orange, NJ. Her father William was a chemical engineer and, in her early years, Beatrice too showed an aptitude for science and math at an early age in school. According to a profile on Hicks by the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, which ranks her as the 10th-most influential inventor from the state, Hicks was inspired as a child to pursue engineering by watching the construction of both the George Washington Bridge and the Empire State Building.

However, there were barely any women in engineering fields by the 1930s and popular opinion was not kind to the idea of female engineers. Reportedly, although her parents never stood in her way, Hicks dealt with discouraging opinions from friends and teachers who felt that she should not pursue her engineering studies. After graduating from Orange High School, Hicks received her bachelor’s degree in engineering in 1939 from the Newark College of Engineering, now the New Jersey Institute of Technology; Hicks was one of two women in a class of 900 that year. Hicks would remain at the college for three years after her graduation, working as a research assistant.

World War II Opens Up an Opportunity for Female Engineers

When the United States joined the Allied forces during World War II, a great number of men from many industries left their careers to fight in the armed forces. In 1942, she was hired as an engineer by Bell Telephone subsidiary Western Electric, the first such female hire in Western’s history. Online profiles citing to published biographies on Hicks note that, while at Western, she worked on developing crystal oscillators to generate radio frequencies, a technology useful for aircraft communications. She also worked on long-distance telephony tech.

By the mid-1940s, she joined her father’s metalworking business, Newark Control Company, after he had passed. While at Newark Control, Hicks’ career blossomed from serving as the company’s vice president and chief engineer and progressed until she became the company president in 1955. By that time, in 1949, she completed a master’s level program in physics at the Stevens Institute of Technology.

While at Newark Control, Hicks also developed the invention which stands out as her greatest, but certainly not only, contribution to sensing gas levels. She developed a gas density sensor which was installed on devices that used gas-phase materials as either insulators or fuels. The sensor was capable of determining when the gas volume in the device reached a critical level, allowing for much greater control of gas pressure and levels in devices which were required to develop advanced technologies.

Hicks’ major innovation in gas sensor tech is outlined by U.S. Patent No. 3046369, titled Device for Sensing Gas Density and issued July 24th, 1962. It claimed, in a density system, a chamber containing gas, a hollow case with an interior cavity in communication with the chamber, a sealed expansible and contractible bellows mounted within the hollow case and in communication with gas contained in the chamber, and an actuating portion to actuate an output means when the bellows moves to a critical position in response to the pressure-versus-temperature function of the gas. The invention results in a device with high usefulness for signaling when critical gas densities are approached. In one example, the device could signal than an electrical insulating gas is approaching a dangerous point at which electrical arc-over could occur.

Hicks’ gas sensing device gained widespread use, with one of the most notable cases being its use by NASA in the spacecraft used for the Apollo moon landing mission. The ignition systems of the Saturn V rockets used to launch Apollo spacecraft helped to measure the amount of gas, not just the pressure, over a range of temperatures and pressure according to her National Inventors Hall of Fame bio. Other applications of Hicks’ gas sensor technology include antenna couplers on Boeing aircraft for long-range communication as well as monitoring systems for nuclear weapons in storage.

Beatrice Hicks also did a great deal to advance the interests of female engineers during her life. In 1950, she helped to co-found the Society of Women Engineers and served as the society’s first president. The organization has grown from 60 members in its first year up to more than 16,000 in recent years. She was a lifetime member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (IEEE), becoming a senior member in 1957. She received honorary doctorates from various academic institutions including Hobart and William Smith College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. In 1952, Mademoiselle named Hicks the Outstanding Woman of the Year in Business. She continued to work in engineering throughout her life, consulting with businesses of all sizes until her death in 1979.


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