National Academy of Engineering Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 10
Membership Directory
PublisherNational Academies Press
Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 10

Search this Publication

  • Previous
  •    Table of Contents
  • Next
             HOWARD W.EMMONS                                           77
                          HOWARD W.EMMONS
                HOWARD WILSON EMMONS, the former Abbott and James Lawrence
            Professor of Engineering at Harvard University, died November 20, 1998, in
            Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts. He was active in the
            field of fire safety science, a subject shaped largely through his own efforts, until
            shortly before his death.
                Professor Emmons was born August 30, 1912, in Morristown, New Jersey,
            the son of a carpenter. He attended local public schools and received a bachelor’s
            degree in mechanical engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology in 1933,
            followed by an M.S. degree from the same institution in 1935. He spent the years
            1935 to 1937 at Harvard University, obtaining a doctor of science degree in
            1938. He was employed by the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing
            Company from 1937 to 1939 in the development of steam turbines. After one
            year as an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, he joined the
            faculty of Harvard University in 1940 and remained there until his retirement in
                The accomplishments and contributions Professor Emmons made to
            engineering span a variety of fields. He was a leader in compressible flow
            research, discovering the basic propagating blade stall process responsible for the
            unsteady destructive performance of turbocompressors at low flow rates. He also
             HOWARD W.EMMONS                                           78
             ered the existence of turbulent spots in the process of transition of fluid boundary
             layers from the laminar to the turbulent flow regime. His expertise in this field
             was by no means confined to laboratory experiments. He was one of the early
             contributors to the theory of compressible laminar boundary layers and served as
             the editor of Fundamentals of Gas Dynamics, volume III of the Princeton
             University Press series of books on high-speed aerodynamics and jet propulsion.
                Professor Emmons also made novel contributions to many heat transfer
             problems. He introduced the use of numerical methods for solving partial
             differential equations to the heat transfer community as early as 1944, even
             before the development of the digital computer. He was a leader in studies of
             aerodynamic heating, and performed research in drying paper. His research in
             re-entry physics led to a combined laboratory and theoretical investigation of the
             thermodynamics and transport properties of plasmas at high pressures.
                His expertise led to many committee assignments of national importance.
             These included membership on the Naval Technical Mission to Europe in 1945,
             commissioned to evaluate German technological advances in World War II, and
             membership on the Space Science and Technology Panel of the President’s
            Scientific Advisory Council from 1958 to 1970. He was a founding member of
            the Committee on Fire Research in the National Research Council Division of
            Engineering, serving as a committee member from 1956 to 1972 and as chairman
            from 1967 to 1970. Professor Emmons’s long connection with the National
            Bureau of Standards, now the National Institute of Standards and Technology
            (NIST), involved service on Panel 400, dealing with energy and heat transfer from
            1967 to 1976. He chaired the Fire Panel 490 from 1971 to 1976 and the
            Evaluation Panel for the National Engineering Laboratory from 1980 to 1983.
                Although his accomplishments were sufficient to warrant election to the
            National Academy of Engineering by 1965, and to the National Academy of
            Sciences a year later, the activities that dominated Professor Emmons’s
            professional life from the mid-1960s until his death centered on fire safety
            research. His interest in fire phenomena began earlier, in the 1950s, due in part to
             HOWARD W.EMMONS                                           79
             the urging of Professor Hoyt Hottel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
             An early result of this interest was his classic paper on what is now known in the
             combustion science community as the “Emmons Problem,” The Film Combustion
             of Liquid Fuel,published in 1956. His growing involvement with fire safety issues
             led to his chairing the 1961 summer study on Fire Research at Woods Hole,
             Massachusetts, sponsored by the National Research Council. This study
             recommended the establishment of a federally funded program in fire research as
             the only realistic way to develop a scientific framework for fire protection
             engineering. It was a major step in a long process that led to passage of the Fire
             Research and Safety Act of 1968, for which he received an invitation to the White
             House. This in turn ultimately led to the establishment of coordinated fire
             research programs at the National Science Foundation and then at NIST.
                While playing a leading role in the creation of fire research institutions in the
            United States, Professor Emmons’s own research activities continued unabated.
            He devised a spectacular “fire whirl” experiment, demonstrating quantitatively
            how a cup-sized pool of liquid fuel can produce a flame several meters high
            (requiring a high-bay laboratory for its containment) under the combined
            influence of buoyancy and rotation. This was followed by a worldwide survey of
            fire safety measurements that demonstrated a nearly random variation in the
            ranking of materials from one country to the next. The “Home Fire Project,”
            funded by the newly established Research Applied to National Needs Program at
            the National Science Foundation, was a collaboration between Harvard and the
            Basic Research Program (which he also helped found) at Factory Mutual
            Research Corporation. This project, started in 1972, continued until 1982, the
            year before Professor Emmons’s retirement. The fifty-two technical reports (not
            counting archival publications) prepared under its auspices document the
            systematic development of the first predictive models of fire development in
            enclosures. The reports not only cover the development of the Harvard Computer
            Fire Code, which is the prototype for all subsequent work in this field, but also
            describe a wide range of careful experiments and theoretical analyses designed to
            provide a rigorous scientific under-
             HOWARD W.EMMONS                                           80
             pinning to the computer model. This research continues on a worldwide basis to
             the present day. Bilateral collaborations with Japanese researchers in particular
             have benefited from Professor Emmons’s involvement as a member of the U.S.-
            Japan Natural Resources Panel on Fire Research and Safety. He was a lively
            participant at the fourteenth meeting of the panel in June 1998 in Tokyo.
                Professor Emmons was the recipient of many honors in addition to those
            cited above. He was awarded the Edgerton Gold Medal in 1968 by the
            Combustion Institute, the Timoshenko Medal in 1971 by the American Society of
            Mechanical Engineers, three awards including an honorary doctor of science
            degree in 1963 from the Stevens Institute of Technology, and an honorary doctor
            of science degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1983. He also won the
            Man of the Year Award from the Society of Fire Protection Engineers and the
            Fluid Dynamics Prize from the American Physical Society in 1982.
                Although he never had more than a handful of graduate students at any one
            time, Professor Emmons guided fifty-one doctoral candidates to their Ph.D.s.
            Many of these students, in turn, became faculty members at major research
            universities or leaders in government and industrial research organizations. His
            influence on colleagues both at Harvard and elsewhere was no less significant.
            His ability to get to the root of a technical issue and clarify the thinking of almost
            anyone he interacted with was uncanny. Perhaps equally important was his ability
            to accomplish this without unduly bruising the egos of those engaged in these
            conversations. It is hard to forget the technical intensity of many of the lunchtime
            discussions among members of the applied mechanics group at Harvard, which
            more than one junior faculty member regarded as being more demanding than
            their oral Ph.D. qualifying exam.
                A more relaxed atmosphere could be found at Professor Emmons’s home in
            Sudbury, Massachusetts. He and his wife, Dorothy, were married in 1938. They
            moved onto an old farm in the then-rural town in the early 1940s, shortly after he
            joined the Harvard faculty. They raised their daughter, Beverly, and sons, Scott
            and Keith there, on a property that included a barn, apple
             HOWARD W.EMMONS                                           81
             orchards, and a vegetable garden. The Emmons family enjoyed hosting picnics
             for colleagues, neighbors, and students. An added attraction in later years was the
             swimming pool and tennis court they built on their land. In addition to improving
             his home, Professor Emmons took considerable interest in the Sudbury public
             schools, which the children attended, as well as the local town government.
             Sudbury was (and indeed still is) governed by the traditional New England open
             town meeting, providing yet another outlet for his abilities. He was a member of
             the Lincoln-Sudbury School Committee for seventeen years starting in 1946 and a
             Selectman for the Town of Sudbury from 1969 to 1972. He and Dorothy
             remained together in Sudbury until her death in 1990. Two of their children,
             Beverly and Scott, currently live in Brooklyn, New York. Their youngest son,
             Keith, is a resident of Los Gatos, California. There are three grandchildren.
    • Previous
    •    Table of Contents
    • Next