From da Vinci to Grinnell's spray sprinkler

A history of fire sprinklers

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A tech writer specialising in cybersecurity, working with Redscan on this and a number of other GDPR, MDR, and ethical hacking projects.
May 1, 2019

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They are one of the most effective methods for protecting people, property and buildings from fire, but how have fire sprinkler systems developed over time?

The history of fire sprinklers not only provides an example of inventing ingenuity, but also an industry’s desire to constantly improve and advance. So, from Leonardo da Vinci’s comedy of errors to piano factories installing sprinkler systems for the first time, let’s find out exactly where their current design came from.

15th Century: da Vinci’s calamity

Leonardo da Vinci is more commonly known for his artwork, having painted both The Last Supper and Mona Lisa, but did you know that he also invented one of the first sprinkler systems? His design ­– featuring a conveyor belt system to transport food from his newly designed oven – wasn’t as great as it seemed though, leading to a public humiliation in a sitcom-esque calamity.

So, what happened? For starters, the kitchen’s conveyor belt ran too slowly, requiring Leonardo to make a quick adjustment in order to fix. However, the belt then ran too quickly, meaning that all the food from the kitchen began to pile up. The super new oven that he had created then cooked the food a lot quicker than the kitchen chefs expected, leading to a lot of burnt food. The oven then started a small fire, activating the new sprinkler system that da Vinci had designed and fitted in the kitchen.

You can see where this is going.

The sprinkler system worked perfectly, causing the rest of the non-burnt food to become very damp. The kitchen then became flooded, washing away the food and leaving a number of da Vinci’s high-profile guests to go hungry. It definitely was not his finest work (see below), but at least the sprinkler system worked.

Water Lifting Devices by Leonardo da Vinci: Not sprinklers but an insight into the inventor-artist’s flair for envisioning practical mechanical inventions 

1723: Godfrey and gunpowder

It wasn’t until 1723 that the first automated sprinkler system came into effect. This utilised the design of Ambrose Godfrey, a chemist who used gunpowder to release large amounts of water to extinguish the fire.

His design effectively worked as follows: the fire would trigger fuses which were connected to gunpowder. This would then cause an explosion designed to release large quantities of liquid that put the fire out.

Funnily enough, Godfrey’s method later went on to develop an early form of another vital piece of fire protection equipment: the fire extinguisher.

In 1812 Sir William Congreve’s manually operated fire sprinkler system was installed in a London theatre (Credit: RAD Fire Sprinklers)

1812: William Congreve at the Theatre Royal

Almost 100 years later, the world’s first modern sprinkler system was installed at the Theatre Royal in London, utilising a design by British inventor William Congreve. This featured a system that used an airtight reservoir containing approximately 100 tonnes of water. In the event of a fire, this reservoir would feed into a network of smaller pipes that had been pierced with holes, in turn, creating a sprinkler effect.

1860: Automating designs

One of the main issues with Congreve’s design was that the system was not automatic. Therefore, from 1860 onwards, inventors first started coming up with designs that could turn on by themselves. However, it wasn’t until 12 years later that Philip W. Pratt patented the very first automatic sprinkler system.

1872 – 1874: From Pratt to Parmalee

Two years later, in 1874, Henry S. Parmalee of New Haven, Connecticut improved upon Pratt’s patent, creating a new and improved system. In fact, many consider Parmalee as the inventor of the first practical automated sprinkler head. These sprinkler heads operated individually, with the heat of a fire causing the bulb contained inside them to shatter, initiating the release of water.

At the time, Parmalee owned a piano factory and was so trusting of his sprinkler heads, that he even installed the design in his factory.

1881: Grinnell’s improvement

Fast-forward seven years, and Frederick Grinnell – the owner of the company who manufactured Parmalee’s system – decided to improve the design and patent his very own fire sprinkler system. The ‘Grinnell Sprinkler’ later went on to be considered the first practical automated sprinkler system.

Parmalee is widely credited with inventing the first automated sprinkler head (Credit: US Patent and Trademark Office and

1890: Glass and Grinnell

Continuous developments by Grinnell over the years eventually led to his invention of the glass disc sprinkler – a system which is essentially the same as those currently in use today. In France, they even name their sprinklers le Grinnell in his honour.

1953: Spray pattern

Over the 63 years that followed, Grinnell continued to perfect his design, using new and improved innovations. However, it wasn’t until 1953 when the next major advancement happened.

Following the war, research by Factory Mutual identified the benefits of replacing the conventional Pattern Sprinkler with a more effective Spray Sprinkler system. This later went on to become the industry standard design.

Salesman’s sample, fire sprinkler head display, marked Grinnell Spray Sprinkler. Four unique brass models on brass block (Source: Bullheadtee on Instagram)

1954 – Present: Improved fire safety

Since 1954, the design of fire sprinklers has remained relatively untouched, with more of a focus being put onto improving fire safety as a whole.

Up until the year 2000, as a result of lobbying by a combination of the National Fire Sprinkler Network, the European Fire Sprinkler Network and the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association, sprinklers started to become more commonly installed in newly constructed hospitals, schools, hotels and other public buildings.

Eleven years later, in 2011, Wales became the first country in the world to make the installation of fire sprinklers mandatory in new homes, with their law coming into effect during 2013.

Following the catastrophic Grenfell tower fire in 2017, fire safety efforts have also recently stepped up in Scotland, with a new legislation coming in to ensure fire sprinkler installation is mandatory in new flats.

Sprinklers and fire suppression presentations at FIREX 2019

This June, FIREX International is bringing you the opportunity to discover how to procure, install, use and maintain sprinkler systems. With demonstrations and live Q&As with the manufacturers themselves, you can source high-quality products to fit the needs of your fire safety strategy.

Check out the FIREX 2019 education programme.

See the organisations that are showcasing sprinkler technologies and related services at FIREX 2019.

FIREX 2019 takes place 18-20 June at ExCeL, London, and is free to attend.

Register now for your free ticket >>


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