August 1955 Popular Electronics
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
The Underwriter's Laboratory (UL) is an entity
that seems to have been around forever. A lot of people - maybe most people - assume that it is a government
entity. In fact, it is a non-profit organization sponsored by the National Board of Fire Underwriters.
Its roots are traceable back to the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. Concern over the potential fire hazard
of Edison's light bulbs was the impetus for the effort. Another aspect of the UL that a lot of people
don't know is that the UL label of approval is no guarantee that the device works properly, only that
is passes standards of safety as it relates to fire hazards. This article in the August 1955 edition
of Popular Electronics gives a brief history.
Behind the U.L. Label
By E. D. MORGAN
Equipment is tested, dropped, pounded, and
burned before it is rated as safe and tagged
with the Underwriters' okay.
A familiar sight on much electrical and electronic equipment used today is an Underwriters' Laboratories
label. Exactly what is implied by the use of this label, however, is often misunderstood.
Laboratories, Inc. is a non-profit organization sponsored by the National Board of Fire Underwriters.
Its function is to test and inspect materials and equipment to prevent loss of life and property from
fire, crime and casualty hazards. To do this adequately, it subjects devices to grueling tests. Only
the hardiest designs survive and earn the right to the coveted label of acceptance.
Television sets are subjected to a thorough going-over by Underwriters' Laboratories.
Inc. engineers. Special attention is paid to shock hazards and to overheating problems. Cabinets are
pounded and safety glass hit with steel balls in test.
An enclosed heavy-duty switch is tested in one of U.L.'s many laboratories. Equipment
such as this is operated repeatedly under excessive loads before it is approved and given the U.L. label.
It is important to point out that U. L. approval does not guarantee quality of performance. The testing
is concerned primarily with the safety aspects of equipment. Thus, the label on an approved radio receiver,
for instance, does not imply that it will perform better than one not so approved. It does mean, though,
that the chance of setting a house on fire is negligible if the approved model is used.
No conceivable method of testing is overlooked. Much of the test equipment is of U. L.'s own design
and they dream up diabolical plans to subject samples to the meanest treatment possible. They try to
anticipate all of the mistakes that could be made by a consumer. Appliances are left on for weeks and
electric heater cords are twisted and untwisted thousands of times.
Automatic flatiron is dropped four times during continuous operation test of 500
hours. Temperatures of various parts as well as operation of the thermostat are also checked.
Television cabinets get a thorough pounding before they receive U. L. approval. A large picture tube
can be a deadly weapon when broken, as it hurls tiny fragments of glass in all directions. To insure
against injury, the safety screen on the front must be capable of withstanding such shattering. A pound-and-aquarter
steel ball is hurled at the set to determine its fitness for this purpose.
These are only a few of the authorized labels used by U.L. to designate approved
equipment. An item bearing such a label has met specifications and passed severe tests.
Electronic equipment is often used by U.L. technicians. Here, the split-second operation of a burglary
detection system is photographed. Accuracy is assured by using a cathode-ray oscilloscope, a beatfrequency
generator, and various meters.
To determine whether a safe is fireproof and burglar-proof, U. L. employs its own staff of "arsonists"
and "safecrackers." These men are masters at their trades and tackle a new item with drills, sledges,
torches, and explosives. Just to make sure, the safes are dropped onto concrete from a second-story
level, then placed in a 2000° F furnace for an hour or so. If the internal temperature goes high enough
to turn valuable papers brown, what is left of the safe is returned to the maker with regrets.
Fire doors are tested in large gas furnaces where flames lick at them until they are red-hot. Then
a fire hose is intermittently played on the other side of the door. Acceptable fire barriers must pass
the fire endurance as well as the hose stream tests.
U. L.'s Growth
had its unique start when bulbs were installed at the first Chicago World's Fair in 1893. These became
the Fair's chief attraction - as well as its greatest hazard. Fires, started by the not-yet-perfected
lamps and wiring, were commonplace. This led a group of New England insurance interests to authorize
William H. Merrill, a young engineer, to investigate the situation. He responded to each fire alarm
at the fairgrounds. If the cause were electrical, he would try to locate the defective device and determine
why it failed.
Because of Merrill's insistence on thorough testing before the lamps were installed,
and correcting their faults before offering them to the public, Underwriters' Laboratories, Inc. was
born the following year. Merrill was its first president.
Since then, U. L. has mushroomed.
Over 375,000 products have been found acceptable under its rigorous standards. Testing laboratories
are located in Chicago, New York and San Francisco, with representatives in nearly 200 cities insuring
that the standards are upheld at the factories. The work is financed solely by charges made to manufacturers
for the inspection of their equipment.
Annual lists are published giving the manufacturers'
names and their approved products. Four main lists are prepared which cover: electrical equipment; fire
protection equipment; gas, oil and miscellaneous appliances; and accident hazard, automotive equipment
and burglary protection.
Good will and impeccable honesty is the main stock-in-trade of this organization. U. L. never solicits
business, but industry has learned that it is well worth the effort to make sure its products deserve
the U. L. label.
Posted August 26, 2011