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, MA, in 1872.
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.
His first attempt was not practical as it used a cord holding a spring mechanism which, when burned would release the device. Upon showing the head to an acquaintance it was suggested to him that the device should operate by heat as well. His first patent was for a perforated head with a spring holding am internal valve shut and released by a fusible link. It was complicated and never known to have been used.
His second sprinkler was quite different, consiting of a perforated head and a valve held in place by a spring mechanism and fusible washer. This sprinkler was installed in his piano factory. His third attempt was extremely simple, consisting of a perforated distributor with a brass cap soldered over it. It was not very sensitive as the fusible joint was in contact with the water inside. His fourth sprinkler was similar but the distributor was a rotating slotted arrangement.
Henry Parmelee made arrangements with the Providence Steam and Gas Pipe Company to install his system of heads and pipes, Frederick Grinnell was the owner of the company and he made improvements to the sprinkler resulting in the fifth and final version of the sprinkler. He hollowed the base to separate the solder joint from direct contact with the water inside, and changed the pipe connect to a male ½” thread. Some 200,000 of Parmelee’s sprinklers were installed throughout New England.
Henry’s brother, George, was also involved in the business and traveled to England in 1881 to promote the Parmelee sprinkler there. He had some small successes, but only a few factories there installed sprinklers.
Henry Parmelee’s sprinklers were not necessarily the best. They were not very sensitive and prone to clogging, but they worked and Henry promoted them extensively. They set the stage for many of the advancements to come.
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.