The History of the Fire Extinguishers as we know it

In about 200 BC, the Roman Ctesibius of Alexandria is credited with inventing a hand operated fire pump able to deliver a stream of water to a fire. It was the precursor for other variants on his fire pump using oscillating pistons to force water out of a container under pressure. I vaguely recall seeing a silent movie once – could have been a Buster Keeton classic – which showed one of these with two men either end of a piston boom. They were used well into the 20th Century.

In the Middle Ages a hand held version aptly nicknamed a ‘squirt’ began to be used to apply jets of water to fires. The squirt worked rather like a syringe. The nozzle end was dipped into water and a few pints of water then sucked up into the chamber by pulling out the plunger. The charged squirt was then directed at the fire and the plunger pushed home to eject the water. Squirts were used on the 1666 Great Fire of London although as can be deduced from a previous blog, with no measurable effect. Today they survive as a fun if annoying kids toy.

The first version of the modern portable fire extinguisher was invented by Captain George William Manby in 1819, comprising of a copper vessel holding 3 gallons of pearl ash (potassium carbonate) solution under compressed air pressure. As is usual there is some dispute as according to the Minorities’ Job Bank’s This Month in African American History, Thomas J. Martin an African-American, filed a US patent for the fire extinguisher on March 26, 1872.

Around 1912 Pyrene pioneered the carbon tetrachloride or CTC extinguisher, where the liquid was expelled from a container by hand pump, onto a fire. The CTC vapourised much like modern CO2 extinguishers, controlling the flames by a combination of air exclusion and chemical reaction. The problem was CTC vapour is highly toxic so using them could be more hazardous than the fire itself.

The late 19th century also saw the invention of the soda-acid extinguisher, the thing worked by breaking a vial of sulphuric acid suspended in a cylinder containing a solution of water and sodium bicarbonate. The Bicarbonate apparently neutralised the acid but the subsequent violent reaction expelled the solution under pressure through a tube and nozzle. Can’t see H & SE approving of that today but it effectively marked the start of the cartridge operated extinguisher.

Dr. Percy Julian, another prominent African-American is attributed with inventing the aero-foam extinguisher (for use against gas and oil fires) during World War II and by the middle of the twentieth century the modern type of extinguisher appeared using different extinguishing agents to combat different types of fire with either cartridge pressure or stored pressure expirant.

As a footnote historians have determined that in the 1st Century AD the Romans had approximately 7,000 paid fire fighters. These fire “brigades” not only responded to and fought fires, but also had the authority to summarily punish those who violated fire-prevention codes. The Roman equivalent of the Regulatory Reform Order I guess, but probably with a more corporal style of punishment. At that time the population of Rome is put at around a million people. Today in the UK at the last count we had 55000 fire fighters protecting some 60 million souls’. That’s not counting “non-uniformed” staff and those in government and subservient organisations involved in administration, inspection and enforcement. A lot has changed in 2000 years but have you noticed the helmets are not that different!!

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