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The History of Automatic Sprinkler Protection – Part Two – The First Automatic Sprinklers

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.

This period of time was one of invention and development by many others. Too many to mention here. But by the turn of the century many of the strange and Rube Goldberg types had been weeded out by competition and what we recognize as a sprinkler came into being. There had been some strange ideas, such as heads dependent on burning cords. A great many were of the perforated or salt shaker type, and prone to clogging from sediment in the pipe. Others had complicated internal valves or rubber gaskets that would stick and not open. An early Rockwood head had a double deflector and many might consider a spray nozzle today. Many early heads had rotating deflectors. But in practice this was not necessary and many of these were changed to a fixed design. The problem being that either the head became dirty and did not rotate, or, being subject to vibration in the factory, the deflector slowly rotated and became worn or came off altogether.

Prior to 1901 sprinklers were approved for use and/or tested by local underwriters. This changed when Underwriters Laboratories of Chicago began testing. Their findings were soon universally accepted. This and the rules for installation by the National Fire Protection Association in 1896 were major steps in creating uniformity in the industry.

The list of sprinklers considered as approved for use by the National Board of Fire Underwriters, January 1914, is as follows: Associated, Crowder, Evans, Garrett, Grinnell, International, Lapham, Manufacturers, Neracher, Niagara, Rockwood, and Rundle Spence.

The 10th edition of the NFPA Handbook of Fire Protection by Crosby- Fiske- Forster contains a section on old fire sprinklers. It shows pictures of each in two sections, First approved automatic sprinklers, and second automatic sprinklers no longer manufactured, with each sprinklers labeled as being obsolete, questionable, or considered reliable. This is a great reference to identify old sprinklers to a collector. I assume older editions will have this information as well. I have seen these for sale on ebay and on antique book web sites. I assume that NFPA still has copyright as they are not on any of the public domain sites.

Next – Henry Pamelee

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