“Don’t let people put obstacles in front of you, but understand you also have to put in the work” were the words of engineer Raye Jean Montague as recalled by her son. Montague overcame the limitations of technology, the pressures of overwhelming hours, and the obstacles of prejudice to produce one of the major engineering breakthroughs of the time – the production of the first naval vessel designed entirely by computer. Her work brought computers to a new level of use and kept the U. S. Navy on the cutting edge of technology.
Born Raye Jean Jordan in Little Rock in 1935, she grew up in an Arkansas bogged down by the Great Depression and the ravages of segregation. Her father left when she was young, and her mother raised her while working as a beautician. Eventually, the two moved to Pine Bluff.
In 1942, the navy had captured a German u-boat off the coast of South Carolina. The Nazi sub had threatened ports and ships during its patrols, and its capture was a great prize for a frightened nation. The navy took the sub on a nationwide tour to boost morale. According to Montague, her grandfather brought her to see the sub when it arrived in Little Rock. Immediately, she was fascinated with the design and construction of submarines and was amazed by the periscope and other equipment aboard. From that moment, she later said, she was determined to become an engineer and design ships herself.
She eventually attended Pine Bluff’s Merrill High School, a segregated school. She graduated in 1952. She applied for entry into the University of Arkansas engineering program, but the university would not admit her at the time because of her race. Instead, she attended the Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College in Pine Bluff (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). Because the college did not have an engineering major, she earned a business degree. In 1956, she went to work for the navy as a typist.
She worked in a Washington, DC, office that had a UNIVAC computer, the most advanced available at the time. The 8-ton mainframe device measured 13 feet by 8 feet in size and performed just under two thousand calculations per second with a few thousand bytes of memory. By comparison, a modern iPhone8 has a memory capacity of 256 billion bytes and can perform millions of calculations per second. As slow and primitive as UNIVAC was by modern standards, it was a revolution in computer design. She began teaching herself how the computer worked and how to program it, eventually taking several courses on computers.
She soon asked for a promotion to work more directly with the UNIVAC. Her boss, unsure of the abilities of a minority or a woman to program a computer made her work night shifts to prove herself. She pressed ahead, working deep into the night and eventually earned the promotion.
Along the way, she married David Montague in 1965 and had a son. She was still determined to prove her engineering abilities. By the early 1970s, her superiors gave her what they believed was an impossible project: to completely design a new ship using only a computer. Other programmers had tried for years without success, and Montague was given six months and no staff to complete the assignment. She surprised everyone by developing a successful design program within a month.
The computer-generated design was a major breakthrough. It allowed designs to be developed much more quickly, allowed rough drafts to be distributed at greater rates, and allowed designers to identify and correct mistakes with a with an accelerated speed and efficiency. This would potentially save millions of dollars and perhaps months of work. What could take designers up to two years to complete by hand, Montague’s program could complete in 18 hours. She was awarded the Meritorious Civilian Service Award in 1972 for her work.
The first ship designed through her program was the Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided missile frigate. The first of these ships were built in 1975, and many are still in service in Allied navies today. Not only had she developed a sturdy and effective craft, Montague became the first person to design a ship using only a computer.
Her position as a designer required her to keep the navy on the cutting edge of technology, ahead of every other nation that has put ships out to sea. She helped design the Seawolf-class submarine and the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, both popular and successful crafts designed and built in the 1970s.
After a long, distinguished career, Montague retired in 1990 and returned to Little Rock. She remained active in her retirement years, working with area youths and mentoring students. She also traveled, giving speeches to various groups.
The Women’s Foundation of Arkansas, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting economic and educational advancements for women in the state, nominated Montague to be one of their 2018 inductees into the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame. Montague learned that June that she would be included in the Hall of Fame, joining a group of famous and ground-breaking Arkansas women that included poet Maya Angelou, civil rights activist Daisy Bates, former Senator Hattie Caraway, and former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The honor was a touching recognition of a lifetime of work in service to her country. However, four months later, Montague died quietly in Little Rock at the age of 83.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at [email protected] southark.edu.