Putting out the Fire
We can find fire extinguishers nearly everywhere, from the small one under your sink to the 250-pound extinguishers found on the airport tarmac. Although few people give the fire extinguisher a second thought, a rich history exists behind that red bottle on the wall, going back more than 2,000 years. In 200 B.C., the first portable firefighting device was invented - basically a giant syringe filled with water. Sometime in the 1810s Captain George William Manby, an inventor of a long list of life-saving equipment, created one of the most prevalent safety devices in history. He filled a copper cylinder with water, a chemical called pearl ash, and compressed air, and called it the “Extincteur” – the first true fire extinguisher. During the next two centuries, developments, triumphs, and tragedies occurred as many tried to create safer and more effective fire extinguishers. From early soda-acid fire extinguishers, to the deadly development of carbon tetrachloride, to the rise and fall of Halon, this exhibit displays the history of the fire extinguisher.
Carbon Tetrachloride Extinguisher (1890's)
Although Manby’s “Extincteur” and other early extinguishers worked well, they were cumbersome and heavy, and often left a wet, corrosive mess. The discovery of the chemical carbon tetrachloride – a material that destroys fire through a chemical reaction – led to the invention of smaller yet still effective extinguishers. One such design was the throwable glass “grenade”. To use these softball-sized glass fire extinguishers, the operator would lob them into the fire, shattering them and releasing the carbon tetrachloride contained within the spheres. These devices, although inexpensive, were not as effective as newer pump and spray extinguishers, being hazardous to use as well as difficult to aim and attack the fire correctly. Remarkably, a salesman carried the case shown here from door to door, pitching their goods to the public!
Alfite Carbon Dioxide Extinguisher (1945)
Carbon dioxide extinguishers, invented by Walter Kidde in the 1920s, use the common, non-toxic gas to push away oxygen from a fire, thus putting it out. The carbon dioxide extinguisher is the oldest type of fire extinguisher still in common use today, its basic design virtually unchanged since the first one came out of the Kidde factory. This particular extinguisher, made by American LaFrance, is filled with liquefied CO2 under immense pressure. When activated, the liquid converts to gas and powdered “dry ice”, which is sprayed out of the cone-shaped nozzle towards the fire. The weight of the extinguisher and short spray range limit the widespread use of CO2 extinguishers, however they are still used where common dry chemical extinguishers might cause damage.
Carbon Tetrachloride Pump Extinguisher (1930's)
The problems associated with the glass “grenade” extinguishers required the creation of alternative means of dispensing carbon tetrachloride onto a fire. The hand pump extinguisher was the most common type of “controllable discharge” carbon tetrachloride extinguisher. The operator pumped the T-shaped handle back and forth, and the liquid would spray several feet out of the nozzle hole on the bottom. Unlike the glass grenades, a pump extinguisher can be aimed and precisely sprayed where it is needed. Although effective, carbon tetrachloride is also extremely toxic, and it began to fall out of favor once safer alternatives such as dry chemical and Halon were invented and made widespread.
Chlorobromethane Automatic Fire Extinguisher (1940's)
Traditional fire extinguishers can only be used when there is someone to use them – and this problem gave rise to automatic fire extinguishers, which use a mechanism to release firefighting chemicals when activated by heat or smoke. The precursor to fixed non-water fire suppression systems, the brass vessel of this automatic extinguisher hung from the ceiling of the room, usually a laboratory, records room, or other area where water sprinklers would cause excessive damage. When the temperature in the room reached a certain level, indicating a fire, the spray head deployed and filled the room with chlorobromomethane gas, extinguishing the fire.