Clockwise from left, Emmons in 1933; his slide rule; a fire safety experiment under way in 1953; pages from Emmons's undergraduate notebook.

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The Father of Modern Fire Science

Upon his death in November 1998, Howard Wilson Emmons was considered one of the most accomplished scientists of the 20th century. In addition to his major advances in heat transfer and flow research, he introduced a new field of science, known today as fire protection engineering. Born on August 30, 1912, in Morristown, N.J., Emmons earned his BS and MS in mechanical engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology and a doctor of science degree at Harvard in 1938. After a brief career with Westinghouse, he accepted a position at the University of Pennsylvania before joining Harvard as an assistant professor in 1941.

At Harvard, he performed pioneering work in an area known as compressed flows and was the first engineer to observe that air moving over jet engine turbine blades can transition in places from smooth, laminar flow to turbulent flow. Now known as “Emmons spots,” these pockets of what aerodynamicists call “propagating stall” can damage the turbine blades. Emmons long considered this one of his most important findings. A pioneer in the application of numerical methods, he used mechanical calculating machines, including his trusty slide ruler (now housed in the WPI Archives), to make important contributions to space travel, paper drying, and aerodynamic heating.

Beginning in the early 1950s, Emmons turned his attention to combustion science and fire research. His efforts as chair of the 1962 National Academy of Science Summer Study on Fire Research led to the passage of the Fire Research and Safety Act of 1968, which established a fire research and safety center within the National Bureau of Standards and the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control. He was present as President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law. He also started the Harvard Home Fire Project, which served as the prototype for all subsequent fire prediction models.

When WPI founded the world’s first graduate program in fire protection engineering, Emmons was a major supporter. He delivered the first talk in the Howard W. Emmons Distinguished Lecture series. His papers and research are now housed in the archives of WPI, to which his children, Beverly, Keith, and Scott, continue to donate material and other artifacts. The Howard Emmons collection is part of the Foundations of Fire Protection Engineering archives, which document the creation and pedagogy of WPI’s pioneering program. The collection may be seen in the Archives and Special Collections at the George C. Gordon Library

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