Worcester Historical Museum

Howard G. Freeman
A modern-day Ichabod Washburn
Howard Freeman epitomizes the spirit of innovation in twentieth-century industrial development. He came to Worcester in 1936 to attend WPI. During World War II, as head of Rockwood Sprinkler's research and development department, he invented two fog nozzles to fight fires on U.S. warships that saved thousands of lives. He patented twenty-two inventions while working there. In 1954, he invented a high-performance ball valve and established the highly successful Jamesbury Corporation.

Read excerpts from Howard Freeman's oral history, recorded in January 1998.

"I was born in Winthrop, Massachusetts, in 1918. My mother was educated and articulate, my father quiet and intelligent. He had a flourishing business until . . . things turned bad during the great depression. I graduated from high school in 1936, class valedictorian and voted "most likely to succeed." I received scholarship offers to MIT, Rensalier, and WPI. I chose WPI because I wanted to be away from home, but my mother didn't want me to go too far. The scholarship carried me through the first year. Thereafter, I used some scholarship money, some loans, and I worked in a boarding house, which provided an upstairs bedroom and food for my work in the kitchen. I was a mechanical engineer and a good student. I loved the learning. It was that education that was so fundamental for everything I did in later years.

Rockwood Sprinkler, a fire protection company, hired me right out of college to head a new research and development department. Soon after the U.S. entered World War II, my boss asked me to attend a conference in Washington. The Navy needed help to solve the problem of ships burning at sea. Ships held enormous quantities of oils and their bulkheads were coated with flammable paint residues. More ships were lost to fire than anything else. I went, accompanied by a senior staff member. I might have been an engineer but I was only twenty-three and didn't know much about the world. Shortly afterwards, I called Washington and explained that I knew how to do it, that I would make a model to present to them. I brought the model and the equipment down to Norfolk, Virginia, for testing. The tests of my waterfog nozzle were spectacularly successful and we rushed into production. Many ships and lives were saved by this equipment.

Several years later, I was called to Washington again. Commander Harold Burke asked me if I could make a fog of foam, because the same problem existed with gasoline fires as they previously had with oil fires. You couldn't aim a straight stream into the flames because it would blow the gasoline or oil into the air and cause even more severe fires. I said I didn't know anything about foam. He said we'll teach what we know. So I called my wife Esther and I told her that I wouldn't be home, that I was on a secret mission. I learned about the physical and chemical characteristics of foam, and I went back to work. Within a few weeks I actually visualized in my mind the complete solution to the problem. This invention, the fogfoam nozzle, was pure creativity on my part, spectacularly different. That was very satisfying. It later became the basis for crash-rescue operations at airports around the world.

I worked at Rockwood Sprinkler for fourteen years and produced twenty-two inventions. In February, 1954, I wrote a letter of resignation. I had no job, no income, and a dream. I was intrigued with ball valves and decided to see if I could find a way to make them work extremely well. I talked to a friend, Saul Reck, and my brother Julian, and we formed Jamesbury Company. We couldn't start a business until I could find a solution to the problems that had plagued previous ball valves. It took six months. The following year my brother Julian and Saul Reck left their businesses to join me. We went to the Worcester community for investors. For thirty years I served as chief operating officer, and chairman of the board. Jamesbury enjoyed enormous success, with factories operating all over the world.

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