August 11: A Piano Maker’s Play to Cut Insurance Rates Nets Him Millions


As the Industrial Revolution transformed American market towns into industrial cities during the 19th century, the risk of urban fires – always a hazard – sharply increased. This was especially true in the era that preceded the establishment of building and fire codes. In response to the sharp increase in fire-related damage claims in the years before the civil war, insurance rates for inner-city businesses skyrocketed.

One Connecticut man, Henry S. Parmelee, was determined to find a way to permanently 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 satisfaction, he took matters into his own hands. Parmalee spent years designing a workable fire-suppression system that he could install and 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 obtain him the lower insurance premiums he desired, it made him a fortune: Over 200,000 Parmelee-style sprinkler systems were installed in factories across New England in the first eight years after his patent was secured. Today, thanks to Parmelee and his high-priced insurer, automatic fire suppression systems are mandatory in new commercial construction. One man’s quest to save bucks ended up saving lives too, today 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