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This Day in History: January 21st

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Innovator and barrier breaker, Raye Montague, was born on January 21, 1935, in Little Rock, Arkansas. Montague was a pioneer ship designer for the U.S. Navy and despite her encounters with racism and sexism, she went on to create the first computer-made Navy warship design.

Montague grew up in the segregated south and credits her mother for encouraging her to aspire to greatness despite the climate and racial tensions. Her infatuation with engineering began at the age of 7, when her grandfather took her to see a traveling exhibit of a German submarine that had been captured off the coast of South Carolina. 

She hoped to attend the University of Arkansas but was rejected because the school did not award engineering degrees to African American students. Montague altered her plans and received a business degree from the Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College (now known as University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) before moving to Washington, D.C. to work as a typist for the Navy.

Montague set out to make a name for herself and began taking computer programming courses at night. Her efforts were recognized and eventually, she was promoted to a digital computer systems operator and a computer systems analyst. She continued to grow in the field. She even created the first successful computer program for ship designs in just six months. Through this assignment, Montague’s supervisor saw how committed she was to meet his deadline and supplied her with a full night staff. 

Word of Montague’s program reached former President Richard Nixon and he wanted to see the plans for the computer-designed warship. After receiving the President’s request, Montague and her team created the first computer-designed naval ship plans in less than 19 hours.

For her innovation, Montague received the Navy’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award in 1972. She worked for the Navy for more than 30 years before retiring in 1990. She pioneered the first-of-its-kind program, which served as a crucial part in the designing of warships and submarines.

Montague died of congestive heart failure on October 10, 2018, in her hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas. 

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