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History of Firesprinklers

Kitchen fires are nothing new, and in 15th century Italy, a blaze broke out as food was being prepared for a lavish banquet.  Semi-automated and fitted with a fire sprinkler system, the kitchen in question was ahead of its time.  The man behind both ‘upgrades’ was Italian Renaissance polymath, Leonardo da Vinci and the kitchen belonged to his patron.   The story goes that Leonardo’s design produced so much water that most of the food and part of the kitchen were swept away in the deluge.

In 1723, some two hundred years after Leonardo’s death, and using explosives to release a tank of fluid, Ambrose Godfrey, a German-born apothecary and phosphorous manufacturer, created and patented his own version of a fire sprinkler system.

1812 saw Sir William Congreve’s manually operated fire sprinkler system installed in a theatre in London’s Drury Lane.  Totally reliant upon someone outside the theatre opening a valve, the device comprised a water-tight reservoir, distribution pipework and series of smaller, perforated pipes.  Congreve’s patented device was a welcome step forward, since the candles often used in theatres, posed a significant fire hazard.

On the other side of the Atlantic, work was also under way.  By the middle of the nineteenth century, perforated pipe systems, similar to Congreve’s design, were installed in some industrial premises.  Like Congreve’s, these appliances were not automatic.

By 1860, automation had become something of a ‘holy grail’ and focus for many inventors working on fire sprinkler development, and in 1872, Philip W Pratt patented his automatic fire sprinkler system.

By 1874, Pratt’s system had been taken to the next level by Henry S Parmalee.  Believed to have invented the first (practical) automatic fire sprinkler head, Parmalee improved on Pratt’s work and called his own device the “automatic fire extinguisher.”  Parmalee’s design relied on heat from a fire to melt the solder sealing individual holes in the sprinkler pipework.  As the solder melted, water could escape to douse the flames.

Parmalee worked hard to educate industry and the public about his system but by 1883, some nine years after he first created it, only ten factories were using the ‘automatic fire extinguisher.’

By 1882, Frederick Grinnell, who had been manufacturing Parmalee’s system, licensed a sprinkler device patented by Parmalee, and after making some improvements, obtained a patent of his own for the automatic ‘Grinnell Sprinkler.’  Grinnell’s device was a great success and Parmalee’s eventually withdrawn.

Grinnell continued to develop his designs and in 1890 invented the glass disc sprinkler, modified versions of which can still be seen.  Indeed, in France, sprinklers are sometimes referred to as ‘le Grinnell.’

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, perfecting fire sprinkler systems continued to fuel the imagination of inventors, as designs were continually reimagined and improved. These early pioneers of fire safety protection had laid the foundations from which future technology would take its lead.

On 30 December 1903, at just after 3pm, a blaze broke out at the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago.  On an unofficial ‘tour’ just days before it opened its doors, a senior officer from the Chicago Fire Department noted a lack of fire safety measures at the theatre, including the absence of fire sprinklers.  Billed as ‘Absolutely Fireproof’, the ‘Iroquois’ would not live up to its publicity, as more than six hundred souls perished in a fire reported as the deadliest in US history.

Grinnell Silica Bulb Sprinkler

Grinnell Silica Bulb Sprinkler

In the same year that the ‘Iroquois’ burned, Frederick Grinnell continued to build on past success, further upgrading his fire sprinkler design with an adjusting screw, soldered (three-piece) linkage and glass valve.  The device might by today’s standards seem unsophisticated, but Grinnell, ever the innovator, was still working on new ideas.

From 1922 what became known as the Quartz Bulb Sprinkler (previously referred to as the Grinnell Silica Bulb Sprinkler) addressed issues with corrosion, and by making changes to the volume of liquid held in a glass bulb, it was possible to determine the temperature at which it would burst (as heat from a fire caused the liquid to expand), opening a valve and allowing water to flow from the sprinkler.

Contemporary fire protection designs benefit from high-velocity water spray systems, but this is not a recent innovation.  In 1932 further developments were made to the work of Mather and Platt Ltd and the Mulsifyre System was introduced in the UK.

Post-war America saw the arrival of the Spray Sprinkler in 1953, following research and development by Factory Mutual.  Replacing the conventional Pattern Sprinkler, the Spray Sprinkler became the industry standard design.

Conflict, demand and societal change all serve to drive innovation, and as the UK textile industry declined in the 1960s, owners pondered new uses for mills left empty and silent.  Increased production of rubber and foam plastics meant greater demand for storage space, and the textile barons stood ready to oblige.  As mills underwent a change of use to warehousing, it was clear that standard fire sprinkler systems would not suffice.  Once again necessity fuelled invention with the introduction of large bore fire sprinklers and improvements to water supplies.

By the mid-1980s, fire sprinkler technology had evolved to include automation, high-velocity and large bore delivery systems.  Droplet size became a focus of development and large droplet sprinklers were introduced.

Designers were by now considering every facet of sprinkler technology in their efforts to improve fire safety, and by 1989 Early Suppression Fast Response (ESFR) sprinklers had been introduced.  Developed from existing work on large droplet sprinklers, ESFR systems represented a solution for high-hazard storage risks.

No longer the preserve of commercial or public premises, fire sprinkler systems can now be found in new-build private residences and easily retrofitted to existing properties. Highly effective yet unobtrusive, 2017’s concealed fire sprinkler heads benefit from all that has gone before, with minimal visual impact on the spaces they protect.

A cut-away view of a modern concealed firesprinkler head in place

A cut-away view of a modern concealed firesprinkler head in place

As research and development continues, regulatory bodies set high standards for design, fitting and maintenance of fire sprinkler systems.  The fire sprinkler industry is forward-facing and works hard to promote communication and information sharing between members.

Many of the first steps in the history of fire sprinklers were taken by private individuals – original thinkers with the means, talent and determination to bring ideas to life.  Pursuing patent and profit or driven by curiosity and scientific endeavour, each played a part in what has become a global industry and respected branch of research.

As fire sprinklers and a lack thereof continue to make the news, perhaps the foresight of today’s decision makers will move closer to that of fire sprinkler innovators past and present.

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