Roughly 160 years ago the development of the industrial revolution brought together people and production into a far greater density than had ever been experienced in history. What was once individual merchants and small productions gave way to the centralized factory. With it came new and larger fire hazards not realized before.
Early Manual Systems
Early attempts at suppression for fires in these environments (other than manual intervention by responders) included manual piped systems, which fed water to different zones of a building and ended with permeated pipes. These crude systems still required intervention to activate, only provided water after fire had grown, and had issues with plug-holing due to rust or debris in the pipe network.
The next iterations involved coating the pipe with tar that melted in a fire, opening holes in pipe that allowed water to arrive near where it was needed. The delivery of water in the manual system was still delayed, and a remaining issue remained concerning water distribution.
Parmelee's Automatic Sprinkler
Cue the automatic fire sprinkler, the first modern version of which Henry S. Parmelee famously developed in 1878. The new sprinkler featured a solder-sealed cap between water-filled pipe and a perforated shell, which could more precisely relate to temperature.
The initial sprinkler still delayed in activation as the soldered element was subject to conduction with cool water from the system and a thermal lag from the brass shell. This was improved upon by Frederick Grinnell, who incorporated a soldered element which was not subject to pressures from the water, was exposed to the temperature of the room (removing the thermal lag), and had a a toothed deflector that better distributed water.
Early fire sprinklers often had small deflectors, allowing uprights to direct more spray at ceilings which were often combustible. Over half a century later with manufacturing developments and continued innovation, storage application sprinklers like the Control Mode and then Early Suppression Fast Response were brought to market.
What interests me about the early development was that we were somewhat destined to end up with fire sprinklers constructed in the way we do now. The fire sprinkler is a reliable mechanical device with far greater precision and reliability than nearly all of the public seems to know. It operates independently, simply, and reliably.
Despite so many years between the original sprinklers and now, the principles and basic premises are very nearly what was dreamed about by early innovators. I wonder if in those early years they had any concept of the impact or number of lives those basic devices would save.
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Joe Meyer, PE, is a Fire Protection Engineer out of St. Louis, Missouri who writes & develops resources for Fire Protection Professionals. See bio here: About