August 11: sprinkled

2012/08/11 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1874 Henry S. Parmelee was granted U.S. patent No. 154076 for his design of a sprinkler head.

Oh the lowly sprinkler head, the unsung hero of soaring skyscrapers and vast civic structures everywhere.  Even architects, critics and historians who have succumbed to modernist mania for technovation overlook sprinkler systems.  The undisputed hero of building technology is structure; it’s a day’s work to get most folks to recognize that those really tall buildings were not made feasible by metal but rather due to the invention of the elevator; almost no one stops to think about what makes those buildings consistently (well, relatively so) safe: fire suppression systems.

The very first such system is credited to Brit inventor, Sir William Congreve, who invented a manual device in 1812.  In Connecticut Parmelee created and installed the first automatic fire sprinkler system, whereby solder that plugged holes in water pipes would melt in the heat of a fire and thus douse the flames.  Parmelee was not an inventor at heart, but rather a piano maker, who was looking for a way to lower insurance rates on his factory.  That’s Yankee ingenuity for you!

Sadly for Parmelee, his system was rather expensive and few firms were convinced of its cost benefit (and of course the idea of worker safety was a long time coming, leading to disasters like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911).  He did have some small success in arguing his case before insurance agents in England and the US, but his method failed to catch on widely. Parmelee was dealt a great blow when the manufacturer of his sprinkler, Frederick Grinnell, improved upon the design, patented his work and was ultimately more successful at promoting it.  Poor Parmelee sank into obscurity; neither his later work nor even his death date is recorded.

Image: a later patent (from this source)

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