From da Vinci to Grinnell

The History of Sprinkler Systems

Automatic sprinkler systems have been saving lives and protecting assets for more than 125 years. Constantly primed to fight fires, they are commonly used across a wide range of sectors. Although predominantly used in large commercial premises, factories and publicly-owned buildings, such as hospitals and schools, sprinkler systems have become an affordable option for smaller buildings.

Leonardo da Vinci

The origins of sprinkler systems, and their use as fire-fighting tools, can be traced back to the 1500s – amazingly to Leonardo da Vinci. The French artist, scientist and inventor, best know for his portrait of the Mona Lisa and painting of The Last Supper, designed a crude sprinkler system for a wealthy customer’s kitchen. The room housed what has been termed a ‘super-oven’, along with a system of conveyor belts and, of course, his sprinkler system.

Unfortunately for da Vinci, his sprinkler system, which was not automatic, worked too well. When a fire broke out during a lavish banquet, the system caused a major flood. Water destroyed much of the kitchen and washed away all of the food.

The first successful sprinkler systems

Ambrose Godfrey used gunpowder to automatically release water from a sprinkler tank in 1723. But it was almost 100 years later before the world’s first ‘modern’ sprinkler system was installed. William Congreve designed the system for the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, London, and patented the invention. The system housed 95,000 litres of water in an airtight cylindrical reservoir. It was fed by a 250mm water main, designed to branch off to all parts of the building and feed into a network of smaller pipes that were pierced with holes. However, the system was not automatic.

The dawn of automation

Punctured pipe systems were used as sprinklers in textile mills in parts of America from the mid 1800s onwards. But it would take another 20 years before, in 1874, Henry S Parmalee developed what is considered to be the first effective automatic sprinkler head. He developed it for his own factory, which manufactured pianos.

Frederick Grinnell

Henry S Parmalee’s designed was advanced by the pioneering work of Frederick Grinnell, who patented his automatic sprinkler just seven years later. He went on to further improve his original design and, in 1890, developed a glass disc sprinkler that mirrors what is still used today. Grinnell is considered the ‘father’ of modern, automated sprinkler heads.