Remembering Franklin Wentworth
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2008
During the first dozen years of its existence, NFPA was managed by an Executive Committee and a secretary-treasurer, all of whom were volunteers. By 1908, however, the Association had reached the stage where it could not be managed by volunteers alone because it demanded too much of their time. Then-secretary-treasurer, William Merrill Jr., founder and president of Underwriters Laboratories, recommended Franklin H. Wentworth, the manager of UL’s Boston office, as NFPA’s first professional manager.
Wentworth, who in 1894 had joined Merrill’s staff at the Underwriters’ Electrical Bureau (later renamed Underwriters Laboratories), was appointed as full-time secretary-treasurer at the NFPA Annual Meeting in May 1909 but initially continued to represent Underwriters’ Laboratories in New England. He also served as editor of the NFPA Quarterly.
For the next 30 years, Wentworth guided and increased the size of the Association through both the First World War and the Depression.
In his book Men Against Fire, Percy Bugbee describes Wentworth when he became secretary as “… a self-made man without college background…He was a prolific reader and student and had an unusual gift for speaking and writing. He was an amateur actor, which gave him a dramatic platform flair that enthralled his audiences.”
Wentworth took over an Association that had, during its first decade, concentrated primarily on developing fire-safety standards for the insurance industry. However, U.S. and Canadian fire losses were far greater than those in Europe, and the public was generally indifferent to the problem. Wentworth, who was a crusader at heart, believed it was NFPA’s mission to educate people on fire-safe behavior. He championed fire prevention education and used the Quarterly to get his messages out to NFPA members and the public.
One of his first crusades was to replace the “parlor” or “strike anywhere” match with the safety match. In 1907, NFPA’s Committee on Matches had concluded that the only match the Association could recommend was the safety match, but little headway was made in the fight against parlor matches until NFPA started its general education and publicity campaign in 1909. By 1912, NFPA had adopted a suggested model law and municipal ordinance prohibiting parlor matches. As a result, “strike anywhere” matches eventually disappeared from general use in the United States.
This was one of many NFPA fire-safety campaigns Wentworth led. One of his most contentious campaigns was the battle to eliminate wood-shingle roofs because of their contribution to conflagrations. During his entire 30-year career at NFPA, he championed the prohibition of wood-shingle roofs over the fierce objections of the lumber and wood-shingle industries. NFPA developed a suggested ordinance prohibiting such roofs, and more than 600 cities in the East, Southeast, and Midwest adopted it during Wentworth’s tenure. On the West Coast, the hazard of wood-shingle roofs was not eliminated until decades after Wentworth’s retirement when an adequate fire-retardant treatment for wood shingles was finally developed.
Wentworth also led the crusade to ban flammable nitrocellulose film. He started the battle in 1911, and by the second half of the 1920s, the conversion to safety film had begun in earnest. Wentworth lived to see the final elimination of nitrate film in 1953 at the age of 87. During his entire career at NFPA, Wentworth also pushed for the adoption of restrictive fireworks ordinances. Today, almost a century later, NFPA continues this difficult battle.
In addition to championing fire-safety causes, Wentworth increased the size of the Association, assembled a professional staff, and spread NFPA’s influence across the nation. He hired three individuals who formed the foundation of NFPA’s technical staff for years to come: Robert Moulton in 1920, Percy Bugbee in 1921, and Horatio Bond in 1926. Moulton became technical secretary and oversaw NFPA’s technical committees for more than 40 years. Bugbee became NFPA’s first field engineer and succeeded Wentworth as managing director in 1939, leading the Association for the next 30 years. Bond became the second field engineer and later its first chief engineer.
Wentworth retired at the age of 73 after 30 years of service. During his tenure, NFPA grew from a small, insurance-dominated developer of fire-safety guidelines to an open-consensus-based developer of standards influencing fire- and electrical-safety practices throughout North America. Under his guidance, NFPA became a major distributor of fire-safety information, including technical literature and fire prevention educational material, as well as a nationally recognized fire-safety advocate.
In 1939, Fortune magazine, in a feature article entitled “Fire,” referred to NFPA, UL, and the National Board of Fire Underwriters as the Big Three, describing NFPA as “an all-encompassing-put-the-pressure-on-to-get-something-done organization.” That description also personified Franklin Wentworth. Such dogged pursuit to save lives was part of his character, and his life-long advocacy and steely determination define NFPA to this day.
Art Cote, P.E., FSFPE, is NFPA’s former executive vice-president and chief engineer.