A Brief History of Fire Sprinklers and Protection

  • September 20, 2022

Fire sprinklers are one of the most effective ways to prevent property damage and loss of life. Unlike fire extinguishers, fire sprinkler systems can address relatively large fires with minimal manual intervention.

Even when these systems cannot extinguish a blaze completely, they can buy valuable time for building occupants while they get to safety. Although virtually everyone understands these devices’ benefits, very few are familiar with the history of fire sprinkler systems. 

The origins of fire sprinklers may surprise you, and it is exciting to consider the future outlook for this essential safety technology. 

When Were Fire Sprinklers Invented?

There is a bit of mystery surrounding the history of fire sprinkler systems. However, the consensus is that Leonardo da Vinci, the famous inventor, and artist, was one of the first individuals to create a fire sprinkler system. Although da Vinci’s invention failed to function as designed, this nugget of history tells us that fire sprinkler systems date back to at least the 1400s. 

The First Fire Sprinkler

The next notable event in the history of fire sprinkler systems did not occur until 250 years later. In 1723, inventor Ambrose Godfrey created the first working sprinkler system. Admittedly, Godfrey’s design was a little unusual, to say the least. His sprinkler system used a gunpowder charge, which had to be manually activated. 

To use the device, one had to light the gunpowder charge, toss a liquid-filled container at the fire, and wait for the charge to disperse the liquid. Godfrey’s design represented a step in the right direction, but it was hardly practical.

A Full Building Fire System

Perhaps the most crucial development in the history of fire sprinkler systems came about in 1812. That year, William Congreve, a British inventor, created a fully-functional, whole-building fire sprinkler system. The system was installed in the famous Theater Royal in London. 

Congreve’s solution relied on a massive reservoir that held roughly 100 tons of water. The system had to be manually activated but was considered a success. 

Once triggered, water would flow out of the reservoir and into strategically positioned pipes. The pipes had holes pierced to distribute the water around the theater. 

Several inventors improved upon Congreve’s design in the latter half of the 19th century. Eventually, in 1872, a United States inventor named Philip Pratt patented a revolutionary sprinkler system that incorporated an automated activation mechanism. 

The Addition of Sprinkler Heads

The next major milestone in the history of fire sprinkler systems occurred in 1874. Two years after Pratt received his patent, fellow U.S. inventor Henry Parmelee introduced a sprinkler head. Parmalee’s sprinkler heads featured a glass bulb. The bulb would shatter when heated up by a blaze, releasing the water from the reservoir. 

The Birth of the Modern Sprinkler System

The culmination of Pratt and Parmelee’s work led to the development of a system that resembles modern fire sprinkler equipment. However, fire systems would undergo one more significant evolution in the 1800s, thanks to Frederick Grinnell. 

In 1881, Grinnell enhanced the practicality and functionality of Parmalee’s design. Grinnell’s design was dubbed the “Grinnell System,” a name still used today. 

However, Grinnell’s contributions to the history of fire sprinkler systems did not end in the 1800s. He also played a pivotal role in creating a spray sprinkler design in the 1950s. This system remains the standard for industrial fire sprinkler equipment to this day. 

What the Future Holds for Fire Sprinklers

While modern fire sprinkler systems still rely on design elements that date back to 1953, they also now incorporate better materials and strategic concepts that increase their efficacy. 

Trailblazers in the fire sprinkler space, like A&A Fire Protection, are constantly exploring ways to optimize our systems. We provide residents and business owners with access to world-class equipment and industry-leading expertise. 
Our team combines tried and true designs with innovative practices so that we can give our clients the very best in fire protection. If you are interested in a fire sprinkler system for your home or business, contact A&A Fire Protection today.

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