Underwriters Laboratories: 130+ Years of Keeping Us Safe

The term “underwriting” is believed to have originated in the early days of Lloyd’s of London when risk takers (underwriters) wrote their names below (under) the total amount of risk they were willing to undertake, such as a voyage of a merchant ship, in exchange for a specified premium.

Underwriters Laboratories Inc. was founded in America by William Henry Merrill. After graduating from MIT in 1889 with a degree in electrical engineering, Merrill went to work as an electrical inspector for the Boston Board of Fire Underwriters. At the turn of the 20th century, fire loss was on the rise in the United States, and the increasing use of electricity in homes and businesses posed a serious threat to property and human life.

In May 1893, Merrill moved to Chicago to work for the Chicago Fire Underwriters’ Association. His task was to inspect the city’s fire alarm systems. He was also sent to the 1893 World’s Fair to inspect the Fair’s electrical installations and the Palace of Electricity. In order to determine and mitigate risk in his role as an electrical inspector, Merrill found it necessary to conduct tests on building materials and electrical components.

Upon seeing a growing potential in this field, in 1894 Merrill decided to open his own laboratory where he would use scientific principles to test products for fire and electrical safety. Merrill soon went to work on developing safety standards, conducting tests, and uncovering hazards.

In the early years, UL tested three main types of products: devices meant to stop fire (such as fire extinguishers), devices meant to resist fire (such as fire doors), and devices that frequently caused fire (like electrical wires). This work soon expanded, and throughout the 20th century, UL certified many pivotal consumer technologies, such as vacuum cleaners, televisions, microwaves, personal computers, and more.

With the holidays right around the corner, Northbrook, IL-based Underwriters Laboratories is reminding families to keep safety on the menu to help prevent fires and injuries. Inspect lights and cords for broken sockets, frayed wires or loose connections, check to see that outside lighted decorations are certified for outdoor use, and look for the UL label on electrical and electronic items.

Watch this video of a house fire, most likely sparked by faulty Christmas tree lights, and see how it destroys a living room in a shocking 46 seconds.

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