The History of Automatic Sprinkler Protection
Part 2 – The First Automatic Sprinklers
Inventors first began experimenting with automatic sprinklers around 1860 when Barnabas Wood of Nashville, Tennessee patented the first basic sprinkler. It featured a fusible solder link and operated at 165°F, still a standard temperature rating to this day. And in England, a Major Stewart Harrison of the 1st Engineer London Volunteers, developed an automatic sprinkler that apparently was a good design at the time, But neither had any success.
Henry S. Parmelee of New Haven, Connecticut is considered the inventor of the first practical automatic sprinkler head and took out his first patent in 1874. It was his third sprinkler design, in 1875, that became the one first installed commercially. It consisted of a cap, held in place by solder, covering a perforated distributor. He continued to improve this design. In 1878 it was further modified with a rotating slotted distributor which was less prone to clogging by sediment. The final version of the Parmelee sprinkler was actually done by Frederick Grinnell. He changed the thread to a ½” male fitting, and hollowed the base to separate the solder joint from contact with the water in the pipes.
Frederick Grinnell, President of The Providence Steam and Gas Pipe Company, entered in to an agreement with Henry Parmelee to manufacture his sprinklers on a royalty basis. Thousands of these sprinklers would be installed over the next few years. In 1882 he patented the automatic sprinkler that bears his name. This is considered to be the first sensitive automatic sprinkler. The Glass Disk Sprinkler came in 1890. It had a ½” orifice and a fixed deflector. It was modified in 1903 and manufactured for many years. It is probably the most common old Grinnell sprinkler to be found by collectors.
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.