• Peggie Koon Recognizes Black History Month

    Peggie W. Koon, Ph.D.

    Peggie W. Koon, Ph.D., recognizes Black History Month

    February is Black History Month. In recognition, Peggie W. Koon, Ph.D., the 2014 President of International Society of Automation (ISA) and the 2015 Chair of the Automation Federation, was recently interviewed to bring attention to the contributions of black people in automation and engineering, and to encourage more young black men and women to discover the joys and rewards of careers in these fields. Dr. Koon is the first African American (and second female) to have held the office of ISA president.

    Q:  Why is it important that ISA and its umbrella organization, the Automation Federation, take a visible role in recognizing Black History Month?

    A:  As the premier source of ‘all things automation’ for automation professionals, manufacturers and the automation community as a whole, ISA sets the standard for automation. As the ‘Voice of Automation,’ the Automation Federation seeks to encourage all people—and certainly all minority groups—to pursue STEM-related education and career opportunities in automation and engineering.

    Black History Month gives both organizations the opportunity to celebrate the many outstanding contributions and achievements—particularly in the areas of automation, engineering and manufacturing—that have been made by African Americans.

    And given that Engineering Week (22-28 February) and Girl Day (26 February) are fast approaching, now also is an ideal time to raise awareness among young people and girls of all ethnicities and backgrounds that automation and engineering are fun, exciting, and rewarding pursuits.

    Q:  When you reflect on the achievements of African Americans in automation and engineering, do certain names come to mind?

    A:  Certainly. African Americans of both genders have made major contributions to automation and engineering for more than 100 years. Some of my favorite innovators and their noteworthy achievements are included below. 

    • Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894), widely considered to be one of the earliest chemical engineers, revolutionized sugar processing with the invention of the multiple-effect evaporator under vacuum. Rillieux’s recognized that, at reduced pressure, the repeated use of latent heat would produce better quality sugar at lower cost. The invention was an important development in the growth of the sugar industry.

    • Elijah McCoy (1844-1929) was a noted African American inventor who was issued more than 57 patents for his inventions during his lifetime. His best-known invention was a cup that fed lubricating oil to machine bearings through a small bore tube. Machinists and engineers who wanted genuine McCoy lubricators might have used the expression ‘the real McCoy.’

    • Otis Boykin (1920-1982) invented an improved electrical resistor used in computers, radios, and television sets and a variety of other electronic devices.

    • Frederick McKinley Jones (1893-1961) in 1939 invented and received a patent for an automatic ticket-dispensing machine to be used at movie theaters. He later sold the patent rights to RCA.

      Soon after, Jones formed a partnership firm called the US Thermo Control Company, with Jones serving as vice president. He soon would develop an automatic refrigeration system, the Thermo King, that would allow large trucks to transport perishable products without spoiling. Eventually, Jones modified the original design so it could be outfitted for trains, boats, and ships.

      The Thermo King transformed the shipping and grocery businesses and US Thermo Control became a multi-million-dollar company. Grocery chains were now able to import and export products that previously could only have been shipped as canned goods. As a result, the frozen food industry was born and—for the first time—consumers could enjoy fresh foods from around the globe.

      During World War II, the need to protect blood serum for transfusions and medicines led Jones to create an air-conditioning unit for military field hospitals and a refrigerator for military field kitchens. Jones’ innovations saved many lives.  A modified form of his device is still in use today. Learn more at: http://www.blackpast.org/aah/jones-frederick-mckinley-1893-1961

    • George Carruthers (born 1939) has gained international recognition for his work, which focuses on ultraviolet observations of the earth's upper atmosphere and of astronomical phenomena. Ultraviolet light is the electromagnetic radiation between visible light and x-rays. Carruthers also led the team that invented the far ultraviolet camera spectrograph.

    • David Crosthwait, Jr. (1898-1976), an electrical and mechanical engineer, received patents on 39 inventions relating to the design, installing, testing, and service of heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC) power plants.

    • Robert Curbeam (born 1962) is vice president of Mission Assurance, Quality and Raytheon Six Sigma™ for Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems (IDS). Curbeam, retired from the US Navy after 23 years of service, was lead project manager officer for the F-14 Air-to-Ground Weapons Separation Flight Test Program. A graduate of the Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) and Navy Test Pilot School, Curbeam holds an advanced degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering and a master of science degree in aeronautical engineering from the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, California. As a Navy pilot, he logged more than 3,000 flight hours in 25 different aircraft and spacecraft.

    You’ll have to forgive me if I also include my brother—Enoch Ward, Jr.,—on this this list. Enoch was the first black man to earn a chemical engineering degree from Georgia Institute of Technology.  He went on to work for Dow Chemical and Procter & Gamble before becoming a minister in 1994. My other brother, Bennie, is a Distinguished Professor of Physics and Chair of the Physics Department at Baylor University. He earned bachelor of science degrees in mathematics and physics from MIT, a master’s degree in physics from Princeton and a doctorate degree in physics from Princeton.

    Q:  What would you like to tell young black men and women (and boys and girls) about the value of opportunities in the automation and engineering fields?

    A:  Engineering and automation are exciting, rewarding, and fun careers. I recall the very first time I led my team in implementing process control of indigo dyeing and slashing operations. We used technology to control and automate processes that were previously being run manually in the plant. The project provided our company with tremendous cost savings in both material and labor. It also provided an avenue for workforce development.

    The people who ran the machines learned new skills via the new technology; the quality of our products was improved; and the quality was more consistent from production run from production run. I could go on and on about the new types of digital field instrumentation my process control engineers used to execute the control, the new control algorithms they used to optimize control of the operations, the relationships they forged with the operators and managers at the plant, the pride the entire team felt about the contribution they made, and the recognition they received—both in laudatory and monetary terms—for their hard work.  There is nothing more gratifying than seeing something you developed put into production and watching it run successfully! That’s what automation professionals do!

    Q:  What would you like to tell young black men and women (and boys and girls) about the value of joining ISA? What can membership offer them?

    A:  Membership in ISA has provided me with tremendous opportunities to learn and grow both professionally and personally. I published my first technical paper for an ISA technical symposium and I delivered my first management presentation at the event.

    I learned leadership and management skills, including developing budgets and business plans, assembling teams, and more—all via ISA. I was able to exchange ideas with peers in my industry and learn about new products and methodologies related to my job. 

    In addition, I became a part of, and had access to, a powerful network of subject matter experts (SME’s) who have made themselves available to assist me with difficult technical problems. But most importantly, they have become lifelong friends. You can have access to all of this, too, as a member of ISA.

    Q:  As a successful black woman in automation, do you feel that prospects/opportunities for blacks in the field have improved since you embarked on your career in automation? If so, in what ways? 

    A:  Some things have changed and yet some things have remained the same. There is still a great need for engineers and other automation and STEM professionals; that has not changed. 

    When I first started my career in automation there were very few blacks, and even fewer women in the field, I can recall being one of a handful of women pursuing an engineering major at Georgia Tech and one of two women engineers hired in my group at General Motors at the time. Back then, engineering and automation were truly male-dominated professions.

    Today, though, while opportunities abound in automation, engineering and other STEM fields, there is a shortage of young people pursuing those STEM degrees and STEM careers.

    Q;  What additional steps need to be taken and progress made to ensure that more black people have the opportunity to work toward careers in these areas? 

    A:  Many young people are not interested in engineering and automation because they do not understand how very important they are to our nation and our world. We don’t often celebrate and recognize the amazing things being done within these professions.

    Much of what these people do is taken for granted. We need to fully recognize and raise awareness of the important and often life-changing contributions engineers and automation professionals have made (and are continuing to make) to our world.  We need to forge partnerships with industry and engineering/technical schools so that young people can work as interns to see what engineers do and can learn more about the profession. 

    We should take steps to mentor our young people, including minority youngsters, so that they can see themselves in fulfilling careers. Yes, it’s important that we honor all the contributions of black innovators during Black History Month. At the same time, we need to inspire our young people so they have the best chance to succeed, to become the next generation of innovators. We also need to create corporate cultures that promote diversity and encourage leadership and professional development for minority professionals.

    It’s important to note that ISA and the Automation Federation and its member companies are committed to these critical goals, and are collaborating on strategies and initiatives to enhance diversity representation and career opportunities.


    Peggie W. Koon, Ph.D., CEO & Founder of Leading Change, LLC, is a strategist and leadership coach and consultant.  Dr. Koon possesses a long and impressive track record as an automation and control professional; media company executive; and volunteer leader at the International Society of Automation (ISA) and its umbrella association, the Automation Federation.

    She has worked in the field of automation for more than 25 years. She served as the Director of Plant Systems at Graniteville Company and Avondale Mills, and the Director of Integrated Manufacturing Systems for Graniteville Company. Prior to her positions at Avondale/Graniteville, Dr. Koon held various operational IT roles at Babcock & Wilcox, Barnwell Nuclear Fuels Plant, Rockwell International and General Motors.

    Dr. Koon’s media career began in 2006 at Morris Digital Works (MDW), where she worked on strategic audience and revenue initiatives. She became deputy chief operating officer of the delivery division for MDW and also served as the corporate director of strategy, partnership development and management for Morris Communications and Morris Publishing Group. Most recently, she was the vice president of Audience at Chronicle Media and The Augusta Chronicle.

    Dr. Koon was an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina in Aiken, South Carolina, where she taught principles of business information systems to senior undergraduate students in the School of Business. In addition she has served as a member of the Board of Directors of the Smith College Alumnae Association.

    Dr. Koon earned a bachelor of arts in mathematics from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, USA. She completed graduate studies in industrial and systems engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia and received a doctorate degree in management information systems from Kennedy Western University in Cheyenne, Wyoming, USA.

    Dr. Koon has been a member and leader at ISA for more than 20 years. She assumed her first leadership position (Membership Chair of ISA’s Management Division) within ISA in 1996. Since that time, she has held a variety of prominent roles in the Society, most notably ISA president (2014). In 2015, she served as Chair of the Automation Federation. Dr. Koon is currently serving as: an at-large member of the 2016 ISA Executive Board; 2016 Chair of Workforce Development for the Automation Federation; Chair of the 2016 ISA Nominating Committee; and Chair of the 2016 ISA Honors & Awards Committee.