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Ray Jean Montague—Naval Engineer and Ship Designer

This article is the third in a three-part series that celebrates Black History Month. These articles highlight the contributions of individual African Americans in the history of the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction industries.

A woman in a photo

Raye Jean Montague (1935-2018)

Naval Engineer and Ship Designer Raye Jean Montague etched her place in maritime history as the first person to create a computer-aided draft of a U.S. naval ship.

Early Childhood and Adulthood

Montague was born on January 21, 1935, and grew up in segregated Little Rock, AK. When she was seven years old, her grandfather took her to see a captured WWII German submarine. During that visit, she became interested in how the vessel worked—prompting her to pursue the skills needed to build the ship. Despite facing discrimination due to her race and gender, she graduated from Merrill High School in Pine Bluff, AK, in 1952.

She accepted admittance to Arkansas Mechanical & Normal College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluffs). Montague was interested in pursuing a degree in engineering but could not join the program because the program would not admit African American female students at the time. Instead, she graduated with a degree in business administration in 1956 and moved to Washington, D.C., to work as a clerk typist for the U.S. Navy.

Naval Career

Committed to accomplishing her childhood dream of building naval ships, Montague attended night courses to learn computer programming in hopes of being promoted to operate the UNIVAC I computer—the first digital computer used for business and administrative use. After proving herself to her superiors, Montague was promoted to the position of digital computer systems operator and was transferred to David Taylor Model Basin—one of the world’s most extensive test facilities for the development of ship design—in Potomac, Maryland. Six years after joining the U.S. Navy as a clerk typist, she was promoted to computer systems analyst for the Naval Ship Engineering Center and later director of the Integrated Design, Manufacturing, and Maintenance program for the Naval Sea Systems Command. She also held the position of manager for the Navy’s Computer-Aided Design and Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAD/CAM) program.

Launching Computer-Aided Ship Design

In 1971, Montague’s department was tasked with creating a computer-generated ship design in one month. She made the first draft for the Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided-missile frigate in just eighteen hours. Montague’s draft of ship specifications made her the first person to design a naval vessel using CAD, catapulting her reputation in the U.S. Navy. In 1972, she was awarded the Meritorious Civilian Service Award–the Navy’s third-highest honorary award–in recognition of her contributions to computer-aided ship design, particularly for the feat of creating the first automated system for selecting and printing ship specifications.

Later Life

After 34 years in the Navy, Montague retired in 1990. She moved to Little Rock, AK, and spent her retirement supporting nonprofit organizations and local schools. She was inducted into the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame and received an Honorary Doctor of Law Degree from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Ship Design Resume

  • Seawolf-class submarine

  • Nimitz-class aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower

Awards and Accolades

  • Meritorious Civilian Service Award (U.S. Navy, 1972)

  • Society of Manufacturing Engineers Achievement Award (1978)

  • National Computer Graphics Association Award for the Advancement of Computer Graphics (1988)

  • Arkansas Women's Hall of Fame (2018)

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