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The History of Automatic Sprinkler Protection, Part One

Part 1 – The Beginnings, Perforated Piping Systems

The forerunners of the automatic sprinkler system were the perforated pipe and open sprinkler. The perforated pipe system, as its name implies, was simply a series of small perforated pipes attached to the ceiling and divided into sections.

In 1806 John Carey filed a patent in London for a perforated pipe concept for fire protection systems, but the system never gained acceptance. The world’s first recognizable sprinkler system was installed in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in the United Kingdom in 1812 The apparatus consisted of a cylindrical airtight reservoir of 400 hogsheads fed by a 10 inch water main which branched to all parts of the theater. A series of smaller pipes feed from the distribution pipe were pierced with a series of ½” holes.

From 1852 to 1885, perforated pipe systems were used in textile mills throughout New England as a means of fire protection. The Providence Steam and Gas Pipe Company, later to become the Grinnell Company, was a major installer of these systems.

James B Francis was one of the first to develop a system of perforated pipes and his system was installed many New England mills. Other systems were the Whiting system, Hall system and Grinnell system. Each system having a different spacing ,and sizes of holes in an attempt to effectively distribute the water. The Hall system is notable in that it used galvanized sheet metal piping. It was soon removed from service as unreliable.

These early systems did establish some basic design concepts, Such as spacing of lines, and sizing of the pipes. One early rule was that the sizes of the pipes were of such size that the area of the orifices would not exceed 50 per cent of the area of the pipe that fed them.

Frederick Grinnell’s first patent, on March 12, 1878, concerned perforated “sprinkling-tube” that had the holes bushed with a non-corrodible material such as brass. This indicates that potential clogging of the perforations due to oxidation of the iron pipe was a major problem.

The success of perforated sprinkler piping was short lived. It is evident that with this system there was a great waste of water, and probably poor distribution. Furthermore, the systems were not in any way automatic. They were manually activated by the building occupants. By discharging water over the entire area of the room where there was no fire, the water damage usually greatly exceeded the fire damage. The lack of automatic operation was the main problem as nearly all of the highly destructive fires occurred at night when there was no one in attendance.

Next – The First Automatic Sprinklers

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