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Fire Extinguisher Museum

Brief history of fire extinguishers

In about 200 BC, Ctesibius of Alexandria invented a hand pump able to deliver water to a fire and it is known that the Romans used bucket chains, buckets passed hand-to-hand to deliver water to the fire. Then, in the middle Ages, ‘squirts’ began to be used to apply jets of water to fires. The squirt worked rather like a bicycle pump. The nozzle was dipped into water and about one litre was sucked up 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. The first version of the modern portable fire extinguisher was invented by Captain George William Manby in 1819, consisting of a copper vessel of 3 gallons (13.6 litres) of pearl ash (potassium carbonate) solution under compressed air pressure.

Around 1912 Pyrene pioneered the carbon tetrachloride or CTC extinguisher, where the liquid was expelled from a brass or chrome container by hand pump, onto a fire. A later version of this can be seen in the gallery. Please see the link below. The sizes were usually of 1 imperial quart (1.1 L) or 1 imperial pint (0.6 L) capacity but also made in up to 2 imperial gallon (9 L) sizes. The CTC vapourised and extinguished the flames by interfering with the chemical reaction. This extinguisher was suitable for liquid and electrical fires and was popular in motor vehicles for the next 60 years. The vapour and combustion by-products were highly toxic and deaths did occur from using these extinguishers in confined spaces.

Early Pyrene and Nu Swift CTC extinguishers in our collection.

The late 19th century saw the invention of the soda-acid extinguisher, where a cylinder contained 1 or 2 gallons of water that had sodium bicarbonate mixed in it. Suspended in the cylinder was a vial containing concentrated sulphuric acid. The vial of acid was broken by one of two means depending on the type of extinguisher. One means involved the use of a plunger that broke the acid vial, while the second involved the release of a lead bung that held the vial closed. Once the acid was mixed with the bicarbonate solution, carbon dioxide gas would be expelled and this would in turn pressurize the water. The pressurized water was forced from the canister through a short length of hose and a nozzle. The acid was neutralised by the sodium bicarbonate.

Foam extinguisher consisted of the main body of the extinguisher filled with foam producing chemical and a second container filled with another chemical which reacts when it came into contact with the solution in the main cylinder. To operate you turned the extinguisher upside down and allowed the two solutions to mix, then hold your finger over the discharge nozzle and shake the extinguisher to ensure the solution was properly mixed then direct it at the fire.

Middle of the 20th century the modern type of extinguisher appeared using different extinguishing agents. Manufacturers of extinguishers generally use some type of pressurised vessel to store and discharge the extinguishing agent.

First type of these fire extinguishers were pressurised with air to approximately 10 bar, five times a car tyre pressure, from a compressor. A squeeze-grip handle operates a spring-loaded valve threaded into the pressure cylinder. Inside, a pipe or dip tube extends to the bottom of the extinguisher so that in the upright position, the opening of the tube is submerged. The extinguishing agent is released as a steady stream through a hose and nozzle, pushed out by the stored pressure above it. Modern fire extinguishers still operate in the same way.

We have a large number of highly polished copper, brass and chrome extinguishers in our collection. We also have some very unusual extinguishing equipment / devices and Brigade equipment dating back 80 years or so. Please feel free to contact us if you would like to come and have a look.