Fire Extinguishers - A Brief History (Part 1)

By Hannah Cheshire

Fire extinguishers are an important part of modern day life and are a legal requirement in many types of properties. But how were they invented?

200BC – Ctesibius of Alexandria

Ctesibius was a Greek inventor, physicist and mathematician who lived in Alexandria, Egypt. Although little is known about his life many discoveries and inventions have been attributed to Ctesibius. His most famous inventions are the “Hydraulis” (the earliest known mechanical pipe organ) and the “Clepsydra” (water clock) which is thought to have been the most accurate clock ever constructed until the invention of the pendulum clock in 1656. Most importantly for us he is also attributed with the discovery of the elasticity of air and his research into compressed air and it’s uses in pumps (a branch of engineering now known as pneumatics). His work in compressed air overlapped with his work in hydraulics leading to the creation of a hand pump capable of lifting water from wells.

Ctesibius of Alexandria

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1708 – The Parish Pump Act

Following the Great Fire of London in 1666 more effort was put into improving the design and efficiency of existing fire fighting methods leading to a surge in the development of fire pumps. The Parish Pump Act was passed by The House of Commons and ordered that every parish must keep a water pump to help extinguish fires, however, until 1721 the pumps used resembled a large syringe and had limited effect.

1721 – Richard Newsham

Possibly the first effective fire-fighting water pump, Richard Newsham was an English inventor who took out two patents for what we would now call fire engines (the second of which was in 1725). The amount of men required to operate these fire engines depended on the size of the machine being used. Through the use of a handle, up to 12 men would pump water through a jet which could then be aimed at the fire. These machines were that effective they were in use for over 200 years.

Newsham Fire Pump

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1723 – Ambrose Godfrey

Ambrose Godfrey was a German born chemist who had moved to live in Britain. In 1723 he patented and released a fire extinguisher that worked with gunpowder and a fire suppressing liquid. The container was connected to a system of fuses which when ignited caused the gunpowder to explode and disperse the liquid over the fire but as you can probably guess this may have been quite a dangerous method of fire fighting and was only in use for a few years. It was also not a portable method but intended to be left in place in a room.

1818 – George Manby

George Manby, a British captain, is best known for his invention of an apparatus designed to save the lives of those on shipwrecks called the “Manby Mortar”. He also invented the first version of the modern fire extinguisher that he called the “Extincteur”. It consisted of a copper container that used compressed air to force around 3 gallons of potassium carbonate (pearl ash) solution through a tube and onto the fire. This basic principle of a gas being used to force a fire suppressing solution out of a container is still the main mechanism behind the modern portable fire extinguisher.

George Manby Fire Extinguisher

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Hannah Cheshire | Head of Marketing

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