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By Luke Difiori-Hughes, Executive Search Consultant, Fire & Security

May 31, 2022

Exploring the history of safety devices within the fire and security industry


Having worked exclusively within the Fire and Security sector here at Spencer Riley, I was keen to find out more about the rich history that sits behind many of the key products that have defined this global industry. What better place to start than the fire alarm?



Fire alarms

1852 was when William Channing and Moses Farmer designed the first fire alarm. The system comprised two fire alarm boxes, a key and handle. If someone cranked the handle, an operator would be alerted and then pass the message to the fire station.

The first electric fire alarm was invented in 1890 by Francis Upton. When initially introducing the electric version it wasn’t well received by the public. That all changed in 1902 when electrical engineer, George Andrew Darby invented an electrical fire detection product that worked by sensing if heat had risen above a safety height limit. 


Smoke detectors

In the 1930s Walter Jaeger invented the first smoke detector. He was attempting to design a product that could detect poisonous gas. However, when he lit a cigarette, he realised his invention could detect smoke particles.

It wasn’t until 1965 when Stanley Peterson and Duane Pearsall invented the first home smoke detector. The device was cheap however wasn’t really used in homes until the 1970s.

It’s staggering to think that you are four times more likely to die in a house fire without a working smoke alarm. An equally worrying stat is that 38% of fatalities in fires had smoke alarms fitted but they failed to operate. This explains why public safety campaigns focus on checking the batteries on detectors and having them regularly serviced.


Carbon monoxide detectors

Battery powered carbon monoxide detectors were developed in the early 1990s and the first combination of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors were introduced in 1996. The idea behind the product interestingly dates hundreds of years to the early days of coal mining when canaries were used in mines as an early warning system to detect harmful gases such as carbon monoxide.

In 1995 the 10-year lithium battery powered smoke alarm was introduced and still continues to be used today due to its reliability.


Sprinkler systems

The first ever modern sprinkler system was installed at the Theatre of London, by British inventor William Congreve in 1812.

In 1872 the first automatic sprinkler system was invented by Philip W. Pratt. Two years later Henry S. Parmalee improved the automated sprinkler head design by enabling the bulb to shatter and release water instantly.

In the United Kingdom, the Parmelee sprinkler was installed in Edinburgh rubber works in 1881. What was significant about this moment in history was that it was the first sprinkler to be recognised by insurance companies when customers made claims.

From 1881-1890 Frederick Grinnell continued to improve the sprinkler system and invented the glass disc sprinkler which can still be seen today.

Up until the 1940s, sprinkler systems were only used in commercial buildings. Automated sprinkler systems are now mandatory in high rise and underground buildings in both commercial, industrial and residential settings.

More than 70 million sprinkler heads are installed worldwide annually, reducing injuries by at least 80% and property damage by 90%.


Future innovation

Who would have thought that these everyday fire and security devices would have such a long and fascinating history? Equally surprising that some of the products that had their design updated in the 60s or 70s are still being used today.

There’s certainly scope for further innovation and product development in what is a constantly evolving industry.

Should you be seeking a role within the Fire & Security sector, please feel free to reach out as I may have a role that’s suitable.


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