A Brief History of Fire Sprinklers

Fire Sprinkler
DSGpro/Getty Images

The world’s first sprinkler system was installed in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in the United Kingdom in 1812. The systems consisted of a cylindrical airtight reservoir of 400 hogsheads (95,000 liters) fed by a 10in (250mm) water main which branched to all parts of the theatre. A series of smaller pipes fed from the distribution pipe were pierced with a series of 1/2" (15mm) holes which poured water in the event of a fire.

Perforated Pipe Sprinkler Systems

From 1852 to 1885, perforated pipe systems were used in textile mills throughout New England as a means of fire protection. However, they were not automatic systems, they did not turn on by themselves. Inventors first began experimenting with automatic sprinklers around 1860. The first automatic sprinkler system was patented by Philip W. Pratt of Abington, Massachusetts, in 1872.

Automatic Sprinkler Systems

Henry S. Parmalee of New Haven, Connecticut, is considered the inventor of the first practical automatic sprinkler head. Parmalee improved upon the Pratt patent and created a better sprinkler system. In 1874, he installed his fire sprinkler system into the piano factory that he owned. In an automatic sprinkler system, a sprinkler head will spray water into the room if sufficient heat reaches the bulb and causes it to shatter. Sprinkler heads operate individually.

Sprinklers in Commercial Buildings

Until the 1940s, sprinklers were installed almost exclusively for the protection of commercial buildings, whose owners were generally able to recoup their expenses with savings in insurance costs. Over the years, fire sprinklers have become mandatory safety equipment and are required by building codes to be placed in hospitals, schools, hotels and other public buildings.

Sprinkler Systems Are Mandatory—But Not Everywhere

​In the United States, sprinklers are required in all new high-rise and underground buildings generally 75 feet above or below fire department access, where the ability of firefighters to provide adequate hose streams to fires is limited.

Fire sprinklers are also mandatory safety equipment North America in certain types of buildings, including, but not limited to newly constructed hospitals, schools, hotels and other public buildings, subject to the local building codes and enforcement. However, outside of the US and Canada, sprinklers are not always mandated by building codes for normal hazard buildings which do not have large numbers of occupants (e.g. factories, process lines, retail outlets, petrol stations, etc).