August 11: A New Haven Piano Maker Patents the Automatic Fire Sprinkler System


As the Industrial Revolution fueled the growth of American cities at an unprecedented rate during the 19th century, the risk of urban fires increased in turn — especially in an era that preceded building and fire codes.  In response to the increase in fire-related damage claims, insurance rates for inner-city businesses skyrocketed in the decades following the Civil War.

One Connecticut man, Henry S. Parmelee, was determined to find a way to dramatically lower his company’s fire insurance premiums.  Parmelee owned the New Haven-based Mathusek Piano Works company, and after negotiations with his insurer yielded no results, he took matters into his own hands, spending years designing a workable fire-suppression system that he could use throughout his factory.  On August 11, 1874, he finally received a patent for what became the first automatic fire sprinkler system.  While Parmelee’s system wasn’t the first to rely on a network of water pipes attached to a factory ceiling, he is credited with inventing the first automatic sprinkler head — a spring-loaded mechanism that would release water upon detecting high levels of smoke or heat.

Parmelee’s sprinkler system was an incredible success.  Not only did it net the factory owner lower insurance premiums, but it made him a tidy profit as well: Over 200,000 Parmelee-style sprinkler systems were installed in factories across New England in the first eight years after his patent was secured, and today, automatic fire suppression systems are mandatory in new commercial construction.  One man’s quest to save money ended up saving a lot of lives too, on this day in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Kathleen Robinson, “Looking Back: The Road to Automatic Fire Sprinkler Systems,” National Fire Prevention Association Journal

Henry S. Parmelee, “U.S. Patent 154,076A: Improvement in Fire-Extinguishers,” Google Patents database