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Essex Finney

Agricultural engineer Essex E. Finney was born in Powhatan County, Virginia on May 16, 1937. As a child, he worked on his family farm growing tobacco, wheat and corn as well as raising farm animals. Finney became interested in agricultural engineering when his family acquired a tractor. After graduating from Pocahontas High School in 1954, he enrolled at Virginia State University. In 1956, Finney transferred to Virginia Polytechnic Institute, where he was one of the first African American students to integrate the university. Finney earned his B.S. degree in agricultural engineering in 1959 from Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He went on to earn his M.S. degree in 1960 from Pennsylvania State University, and in 1963, he was the first African American to receive his Ph.D. degree from the Department of Agricultural Engineering at Michigan State University. Between 1963 and 1965, Finney served as an officer in the United States Military.

In 1965, Finney accepted a position with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s Beltsville Research Center in the instrumentation research laboratory. He was appointed assistant director of the center in 1977 and became director in 1989. For one year, Finney served as associate director of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) twelve-state North Atlantic Area. In addition, from 1980 to 1981, he was hired as a senior policy analyst in the Office of the Science Advisor to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. In 1992, Finney went to work at the USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C. where he served as the associate administrator for the ARS. Finney worked with the USDA until his retirement in 1995. In addition to his administrative duties, Finney also conducted research. His early research investigated methods of drying cereal grains like wheat, rice, and barley, and his later research focused on techniques and instruments that measure food quality.

Finney was named a fellow of the African Scientific Institute. He was a member of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering. In 1985, the College of Engineering at the Pennsylvania State University presented Finney with their Engineering Alumnus Award.

Essex E. Finney was interviewed by the The HistoryMakers on July 13, 2012.

Accession Number

A2012.154

Sex

Male

Interview Date

7/13/2012

Last Name

Finney

Maker Category
Marital Status

Married

Middle Name

E.

Schools

Pine Hill Elementary School

Pocahontas High School

Virginia Polytechnic Institute

Pennsylvania State University

Michigan State University

Search Occupation Category
First Name

Essex

Birth City, State, Country

Powhatan County

HM ID

FIN03

Favorite Season

May, October

State

Virginia

Favorite Vacation Destination

Bermuda

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

District of Columbia

Birth Date

5/16/1937

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Washington

Country

United States

Favorite Food

None

Short Description

Agricultural engineer Essex Finney (1937 - ) a pioneer in the field of agricultural engineering, led a thirty-year career with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Employment

United States Military

United States Department of Agriculture

Office of the Science Advisor to the President

Favorite Color

None

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Essex Finney's interview - part one

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Slating of Essex Finney's interview - part two

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Essex Finney lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Essex Finney talks about his family home in Powhatan County and his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Essex Finney describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Essex Finney describes his mother's growing up in Michaux, Virginia

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Essex Finney describes his father's family background - part one

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Essex Finney describes his father's family background - part two

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Essex Finney describes the Finney lineage

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Essex Finney talks about his father's parents and family

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Essex Finney talks about his father, Essex Eugene Finney - part one

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Essex Finney talks about his father, Essex Eugene Finney - part two

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Essex Finney talks about his parents meeting and getting married

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Essex Finney talks about growing up around his family in Macon, Virginia

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Essex Finney describes his childhood home

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Essex Finney corrects his great grandmother's name

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Essex Finney describes the sights, sounds and smells of growing up

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Essex Finney describes the Powhatan countryside

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Essex Finney talks about his father's farming

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Essex Finney describes his experience at Pine Hill Elementary School

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Essex Finney describes his childhood interest in farming

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Essex Finney talks about the changes that have occurred in Powhatan County

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Essex Finney talks about race relations in Powhatan County in the 1940s and 1950s

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Essex Finney talks about his grandmother's health problems

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Essex Finney talks about his earliest exposure to science

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Essex Finney describes the benefits of using tractors and mechanical equipment for farming

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Essex Finney describes his experience at Pocahontas High School

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Essex Finney talks about his decision to attend Virginia State College

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Essex Finney talks about his mother's death

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Essex Finney talks about his mentor, Reuben McDaniel, at Virginia State College

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Essex Finney describes his experience at Virginia State College

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Essex Finney talks about the African American students at Virginia Tech in the 1950s

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Essex Finney talks about living with Janie and William Hogue in Blacksburg

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Essex Finney describes his experience at Virginia Tech

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Essex Finney talks about his mentors, Phillip Mason and Earl Swink, at Virginia Tech

Tape: 4 Story: 11 - Essex Finney talks about his Aunt Novella's support of his college education

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Essex Finney talks about his mentors

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Essex Finney talks about the funding for his education at Pennsylvania State University and Michigan State University

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Essex Finney talks about getting married to Rosa Ellen Bradley in 1959

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Essex Finney describes his experience at Pennsylvania State University

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Essex Finney describes his decision to pursue a Ph.D. degree at Michigan State University

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Essex Finney describes his Ph.D. dissertation research on the viscoelastic behavior of the potato

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Essex Finney describes his experience at Michigan State University

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Essex Finney describes his experience in the military

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Essex Finney describes his early years at the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Tape: 5 Story: 10 - Essex Finney describes his work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Tape: 5 Story: 11 - Essex Finney talks about the racial make-up at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1960s and 1970s

Tape: 5 Story: 12 - Essex Finney describes his experience as a mid-career fellow at Princeton University

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Essex Finney talks about Malcolm Thompson at the Agricultural Research Service

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Essex Finney talks about being appointed as the assistant director of the USDA Beltsville Research Center

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Essex Finney describes his service during the Carter and Reagan administrations

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Essex Finney describes the differences in the agricultural policies of the Carter and Reagan administrations

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Essex Finney describes his administrative responsibilities during his career at the USDA

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Essex Finney discusses current issues in agricultural research - part one

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Essex Finney discusses current issues in agricultural research - part two

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Essex Finney talks about a reunion with his friends from Virginia Polytechnic Institute/Virginia Tech

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Essex Finney discusses federal funding for agricultural research

Tape: 6 Story: 10 - Essex Finney reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Essex Finney talks about his hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Essex Finney reflects upon his mentors

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Essex Finney talks about his family

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Essex Finney talks about how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Essex Finney describes his photographs - part one

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Essex Finney describes his photographs - part two

DASession

1$1

DATape

5$6

DAStory

9$1

DATitle
Essex Finney describes his early years at the U.S. Department of Agriculture
Essex Finney talks about Malcolm Thompson at the Agricultural Research Service
Transcript
Now how did you I guess find out about the position or get, come to you know work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA]?$$When I was in graduate school at Michigan State [University, East Lansing, Michigan] and at Penn State [Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pennsylvania], there was a publication, a journal that came out each month called 'Agricultural Engineering'. In that particular issue was a--each issue would have a, an article on advances in instrumentation and that was an area that I wanted to work in was instrumentation. And so Carl Norris who was the research leader or the chief of the instrumentation research laboratory in Beltsville [Maryland] was the one who edited and published these articles each month. So I had followed Carl Norris' career, his publications through that magazine and so when I finished at Michigan State, I knew I had to go into military service. While I was in the military service I had made contact with Carl Norris, sent him a letter and indicated I was interested in working in his lab if a position became available. So the last year that I was there, Carl Norris wrote to me and said--sent me a letter inviting me to apply. So I applied for a position in his laboratory and he accepted. By the way, while I was at Rocky Mountain Arsenal [Denver, Colorado], we did have a couple of scientists from Beltsville who would come and consult and give us advice on some of our research projects so I had also made contact through the Beltsville research programs, through those scientists who had been at Beltsville. So I was successful in getting a position at Beltsville working in the instrumentation research laboratory under Carl Norris.$$Okay, all right. So this, so now you were here, this is here, where we are today?$$Where we are today, yeah.$$In the same building or this is a--?$$I worked in the south building, the building adjacent to us. On the far end of that first floor was the instrumentation research lab so I started work in the, Carl Norris' laboratory complex in the building right to the south of us.$$Okay. And you were basically on this site for twenty-five years, right?$$I started work at Beltsville in '65 [1965] and I retired from USDA in '95 [1995], thirty years and Beltsville has always been my home. I was at Beltsville from '63 [1963] to '73 [1973] and I went away for one year when I was a mid-career fellow at Princeton [University, Princeton, New Jersey] for one year, came back to Beltsville. And then in 1987, I was assigned to the North Atlantic area in Philadelphia [Pennsylvania] so I went up to Philadelphia for two years then came back to Beltsville. So basically I've been at Beltsville for thirty years. My entire career had been here with a couple of exceptions.$$Okay. All right, now kind of walk us through what your initial assignment was and how you, you know--?$$At Beltsville?$$Yes, right.$$Okay, my initial assignment at Beltsville was in the instrumentation research laboratory as a research engineer. And I was responsible for developing equipment for sorting and testing the market quality of agricultural products. There was a division called the market quality research division, that was the division I was in and that division was concerned with once a product is developed on a farm, how do you transport it, how do you store it, how do you market it with optimum quality? And one of the quality of products that they were concerned about was the texture. That is, after products are harvested they tend to soften, it gets flabby and it ultimately will rot. So I was asked to develop instrumentation for automatic sorting and testing the textural quality, the texture of products, the hardness, the firmness, the roughness. How do these products behave in marketing channels? So that was my project. So I developed what they call sonic resonation, sonic resonance techniques for non-destructively measuring the texture or the hardness, the firmness of agricultural products so that was my first product that I was working on. So that was what I involved in and I wrote a number of papers, one of which received an award from the American Society of Agricultural Engineers for the quality of the work that was done. So that was my first responsibility at Beltsville.$One of the scientists I wanted to comment about and I think is worth putting on the record is an African American scientist who was here when I came and had been here for a number of years. His name was Malcolm Thompson. Malcolm Thompson as far as I know is the only African American scientist who is a member of the Agricultural Research Services [ARS agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture] Hall of Fame. The Agricultural Research Service has its hall of fame which is for the top one or two percent of the scientists in the agency. Malcolm Thompson was trained in chemistry. He got his early training from Xavier University [of Louisiana], in Louisiana [New Orleans, Louisiana]. He worked for a while for the National Institute of Health [NIH] and came to Beltsville [Maryland] as a research chemist working in the insect physiology laboratory which is a pioneering laboratory. It does basic research. And he probably is one of the top scientists, he is one of the top scientists in the agency. He's passed away now but he did research on identifying the chemicals that are important in the life span of insects.$$Hmm.$$Now that might not sound important but it is extremely important if you want to control the insect and control the insect in a way that is not harmful to other live animals or is not harmful to plants. So he had identified a number of chemicals that are extracted from the insect that can be used in developing insect control methods. So I'm not going to say anymore about it but I just wanted to put him on the record as one of the top African American scientists and top scientists in the agency itself. And he worked at Beltsville, very highly regarded.$$Okay yeah and this is Malcolm Thompson?$$Malcolm Thompson.