A History of Mather & Platt Ltd.
CHAPTER 5 - Technical Invention and Business EnterpriseLink to full frames site if you have arrived on this single page.
Part 4 - Fire Engineering

The story of the fire engineering department of Mather & Platt Ltd is somewhat different from the record of the other departments, for in taking up this line of production the firm was following a distinctive course of its own. In its early stages the Automatic Sprinkler story recorded in brief as part of our earlier chronological survey reads more like a romance than a chapter in economic of technical history, although there was little romance in the menace of fire which threatened the Lancashire Cotton mills in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The mills had interiors constructed largely of wood; gas lighting was usually employed; large quantities of oil were used for the lubrication of machinery; and cotton fluff itself was highly inflammable. This combination of circumstances made for serious conflagrations, the frequency of which became alarming. Indeed Mather & Platt had its own fire in 1852, the first year of the partnership; a blaze which had to be put out by men using buckets of water, (1) but neither buckets of water nor other hand appliances could cope with the fire situation in the spinning industry and fire losses were of such magnitude that Insurance Companies were reluctant to cover premises in the cotton trade.

As far back as 1788 Carey an Englishman had experimented with a heat-operated device for discharging water through a system of pipes to extinguish a fire. In 1809 Congreve invented another perforated pipe system and three years later, a valve sealed by a fusible solder, whilst in 1864 Major Stewart Harrison of the 1st Engineer (London) Volunteers, gave to the world the first Automatic Sprinkler Head, his design being as a matter of fact superior to many that followed it. As so often happens, however, it was not to the country of its birth that this epoch-making invention owed its practical development, but to America, where in 1874 Henry S. Parmelee, a piano manufacturer of New England placed an automatic sprinkler on the market, and finally Frederick Grinnell, another American, the head of the Providence Gas, Steam and Water Pipe Company, patented the first reliable and. commercially successful automatic sprinkler head in 1882.

The Automatic Sprinkler and Fire Alarm System the success of which was assured after the invention of the “Grinnell” head is a device for extinguishing a fire in its early stages by the use of water and, simultaneously, sounding an alarm to summon such human aid as may be required to turn off the water after the sprinkler equipment has performed its task of extinguishing the fire. It accomplishes its first purpose the extinction of the fire by discharging water, in proportion to the nature and extent of an outbreak, directly on to the conflagration. This is brought about automatically immediately the fire causes a rise in temperature sufficient to operate the sensitive controls (known as sprinkler heads) and before the conflagration has time to get out of hand. The second function of the system, that of sounding the alarm, is equally positive, as the ringing of the alarm gong is caused by the action of water flowing through the pipes leading to the open sprinklers.

(1) The Manchester Courier 26 June 1852.

Under normal conditions the discharge of water from the sprinklers is sufficient to effect complete extinction of the fire, but if, by reason of the presence of some obstruction which provides an “umbrella” for the fire and prevents the discharge from falling direct on to the seat of the outbreak, the fire is not completely extinguished, the shower of water from the sprinkler is sufficient to hold the blaze in check. Under these conditions sprinklers prevent the spread of fire pending the arrival of the fire brigade.

We have seen earlier how 1883 was the key year in the history of the Fire Engineering Department. Two important events took place. First, as has been mentioned earlier, William Mather visited the United States of America to investigate American methods of technical education and in the course of his travels met Frederick Grinnell, who had just patented his new "Grinnell" automatic sprinkler head. Grinnell was so amazed and delighted that an Englishman should give his time and pay his own expenses to travel in search of knowledge for the benefit of his country, without a hope of personal reward, that he offered William Mather the sole selling rights for the “Grinnell” sprinkler for the whole of the world excepting the territories of the United States of America and Canada. The offer was accepted and Mather & Platt thus had their first ‘baptism’ in the business of fire engineering. Second, two young men, Ralph Dowson and John Taylor, who two years earlier had witnessed a demonstration by George F. Parmelee of the automatic sprinkler head invented by his brother Henry in the market square at Bolton, started their partnership in the fire Engineering business. We have already seen how these young men who had worked together for the Chemical Fire Engineering Company of Bolton, had, in the early days of their partnership, designed and placed on the market the first two-gallon “Simplex” Soda-Acid Fire Extinguisher substantially the same in basic principle as hand appliances in use today.

Within twelve months they patented and installed their own “Simplex” automatic sprinkler, which was abandoned when they made an arrangement with William Mather to market the Grinnell system. John Taylor soon realised that the success of the Fire Engineering business did not depend upon the fundamental soundness of the automatic sprinkler idea or the superiority of the Grinnell head. He recognised that while the sprinkler might ultimately become established by reason of its intrinsic value as a fire-fighting device its general adoption would be a slow process unless he could break down the reluctance of mill owners to spend money on protecting their premises.

Many owners of Cotton mills, regarded in the early days as most likely customers for automatic sprinklers by reason of colossal fire losses in their industry, were not unduly perturbed by numerous disasters in their midst. Even though outbreaks of fire were assuming alarming proportions were not the owners “covered by insurance”? They paid an annual premium for Insurance against loss by fire, regarding it, though heavy, as a fixed charge against their profits and feeling a measure of financial security because one mill burned down could be replaced by another out of the proceeds of insurance. Fortunately there were some officials in the Insurance world who appreciated the value of sprinklers when viewed from the financial angle.

One of the most enthusiastic of this small band was John Wormald who, like John Taylor and Ralph Dowson had witnessed the early Parmelee demonstration at Bolton. He ultimately joined the business of Dowson & Taylor and became one of the world’s greatest Salesmen for Automatic Sprinklers but not before he had played a considerable part in convincing Fire Insurance Companies that the way to increase profits was to encourage the installation of automatic sprinklers by allowing a rebate on insurance premiums in respect of every building protected in accordance with accepted standards.

John Wormald had been a surveyor for the Mutual Fire Insurance Corporation of Bolton, the first insurance company officially to acknowledge that the automatic sprinkler was the answer to the fire losses in cotton mills. Acting on behalf of his company John Wormald produced the first set of rules governing the manner in which automatic sprinklers should be installed in order to qualify for the relief on fire insurance premiums which the company was prepared to allow. In his record of this event John Wormald wrote: “On October 22nd, 1885, I copyrighted and published, the first code of Sprinkler Rules that had been given to the world, and these were based on the data and experience provided, by the previous three years of experiment and practice. So saturated was my mind with the subject in all its detail that I well remember composing the whole pamphlet on a Sunday afternoon without having to refer to any notes. I did not expect that these regulations would find general acceptance, but as a matter of fact not only were they adopted by the British Tariff Companies, but in America they paid us the compliment of taking them as the groundwork of their own Rules subsequently published”.

The established rules of the British Fire Offices Committee now universally accepted as the standard to which all sprinkler installations must comply stand, in all basic principles, exactly as drafted by John Wormald in collaboration with John Taylor. In his book entitled. “The Story of the Introduction to England of the Automatic Sprinkler”, writing of the days when he was on the staff of the Mutual Fire Insurance Corporation and before he joined the Dowson Taylor organisation, John Wormald makes the following reference to the work of John Taylor:-“As was to be expected, the advent of the Automatic Sprinkler attracted the attention of Fire Engineers who had hitherto been engaged in the manufacture of non-automatic appliances, and in the succeeding years there appeared on the British market numerous types of new sprinklers, each claiming to be an improvement upon Mr. Grinnell’s invention”. Of the many devices submitted for examination three British Sprinklers were deemed, of sufficient merit to justify their endorsement, viz. the “Simplex” (Dowson & Taylor, Bolton), the “Witter” (Witter & Son, Bolton), and the “Titan” (J.H. Lynde and George Mills, Radcliffe).

The “Simplex” was a sealed or non-valve device of the Parmelee type, though much more sensitive in its operation, and had the great advantage of being placed on the market in conjunction with the well known Variable Pressure Alarm Valve invented by Mr. John Taylor. This valve is operated by the flow of the water, and is constructed so as to prevent false alarms being given by any variations of pressure in the main supply pipes.

When the water pressure has achieved an equilibrium above and below the Valve, the clack, which is of differential area, drops by its own weight upon a seating on which is grooved an annular chamber with an outlet pipe to a small water motor, to the spindle of which are attached revolving hammers that strike a loud-sounding gong. In practice the opening of a Sprinkler Head reduced the pressure above the Valve, which is lifted by the upward flow from the main supplies, and so long as this continues, water passes to the motor and the gong sounds a continuous alarm. In the clack of the valve there is a small compensating valve which takes up any violent fluctuation of pressure without lifting the Valve itself, thus obviating false alarms”.

“Next to Mr. Grinnell‘s invention this ingenious Valve of Mr. Taylor’s remains the most important advance in the development and practice of Automatic Fire Extinction. Previously there was nothing better than a rude and clumsy clockwork arrangement consisting of a cord wound round a drum with a weight attached which, when released, caused a hammer to strike a gong just as in an 8-day clock. When the weight reached the ground the alarm ceased. Mr. Taylor’s new Valve was speedily adopted by Mr Grinnell himself and applied all over America. It is still an integral part of every Sprinkler Installation.”

The patent rights covering John Taylor’s Alarm Valve were later granted to the ‘Grinnell’ Corporation in America, and his alarm valve continues in use to this day.

We thus have early signs of the engineering ability, which John Taylor brought to bear on many problems in the later history of Mather & Platt Ltd. The early sprinkler days were not, however, without their troubles. Ralph Dowson once staged a sprinkler demonstration in Calcutta. He built a wooden house and equipped it with sprinklers. The Mayor, with leading civil servants and businessmen were invited and attended the demonstration. Eventually a fire was lit in the house, which proceeded, to everyone’s alarm, to burn to the ground. The water supply was from a town’s main, which was blocked: it had pressure but no volume. This was an exceptional demonstration: most of the displays staged and they soon became famous, were startling and impressive in their effectiveness. We may be sure that the lessons of the incident in Calcutta were not lost on Dowson-Taylor or their friends in the Insurance world: they provided early proof of the wisdom of having secondary water supplies whenever possible.

The sprinkler system is not the sort of apparatus that demands constant technical changes. There have, however, been considerable improvements since 1900. The original “Grinnell” sprinkler head had as its operating element three metal parts soldered together. Excellent as the soldered sprinkler was, atmospheric corrosion could, in certain circumstances, be disastrous, and a search was made to find a sprinkler composed of operating parts which were immune to atmospheric corrosion, In 1902 a patent for glass bulb sprinklers was granted. Early development work was carried out with bulbs obtained from abroad, but from 1907 bulbs for further experimental work were produced in England. Experimental bulb sprinklers were installed in Park Works in 1913, and in 1920 development work was resumed by Mather & Platt technicians in the newly established Research Department. As a result a spherical bulb automatic sprinkler was invented, which was approved by the Insurance companies in 1922.

The Quartzoid bulb automatic sprinkler was approved three years later. The full story of the perfection of the quartzoid bulb sprinkler would contain many stories of frustration and countless disappointments as well as a mass of technical information outside the scope of this history but it is of interest to record that one of the band of enthusiastic workers who carried research on this problem to a successful conclusion was the son of one of the first employees of Dowson & Taylor. In an earlier chapter reference has been made to the technical ability of Edward Roberts as a sprinkler engineer, and it is fitting that Arthur Roberts, the son of this pioneer technician should follow in his father’s footsteps and play a noteworthy part in producing a new type of head which, by reason of its strength and resistance to corrosion, is now accepted as the sprinkler for all situations.

The order book for automatic sprinklers takes the reader into all parts of the world and into the premises of business firms whose names are household words. It is a far cry to the day when Cotton Mills of Lancashire were regarded as the limit of Sprinkler protection and Grinnell equipment is now to be found in every branch of industry and commerce, even to underground mine workings and to luxury liners like the “Queen Mary” and the “Queen Elizabeth”.

But sprinklers are not the only products of the Fire Engineering Department, which has expanded greatly since Dowson, Taylor & Co. Ltd, moved from Blackfriars Bridge to Park Works in 1902. The pioneering spirit continued to be John Taylor and he was ably assisted by Edward Roberts whose energies were concentrated on the technical work of the department.

Among the wide range of products of the Department are automatic electrically driven fire pumps, necessary adjuncts to many sprinkler installations. The development of these pumps brought into play three sides of the company's business, the pump department, the electrical department and the fire department. There were obvious advantages in maintaining such complementary lines of activity.

As part of the policy of curtailing loss by fire John Taylor and his colleagues in the Fire Engineering division turned their attention to the production of an efficient fire-resisting door. While striving to secure the universal adoption of sprinklers as a logical means of cutting fire loss by extinguishing each outbreak automatically they realised that there were bound to be many buildings in which sprinklers would not be installed. To minimise the fire loss in such buildings the provision of fire resisting doors, to seal off one part of a building in which fire occurred from other rooms to which the conflagration might spread through communicating doors, was a logical step.

Up to about 1890 most fire doors were constructed of iron, although every fire expert knew that such doors could not be satisfactory because the heat of the fire was radiated through them or caused them to warp and buckle, leaving gaps through which flames could pass. Further, such doors were liable to tear themselves from their fastenings and so allow the fire to pass; or, alternatively, and equally unfortunately, jammed and did not allow the firemen to gain access to the seat of a fire.

In 1890 Dowson & Taylor introduced from America an armoured fire door, constructed of pinewood boards of a given thickness nailed across each other in a special way, and finally sheathed in tinned steel plates, joined together according to a special process which allowed the plates to expand under the influence of heat and yet remain airtight. The idea of using a wooden door to resist the spread of fire met with as much ridicule as had Wilkinson’s idea of an iron boat a hundred years before. Today, however, the Armoured Fire Door stands proved by its performance in saving many buildings from destruction by fire and it is in universal use. Fire fighting experts recommend it, and architects specify it just as confidently as they specify brick for walls and glass for windows. In order to enable the company to meet a growing demand the manufacture of fire resisting doors was transferred in 1906 to a separate works at Preston.

The advance in technical knowledge subsequently resulted in the development of a Composite door, manufactured of steel and asbestos. This door is used where it is necessary to have a fire door, which harmonises with its surroundings. Although the composite door has good fire resisting qualities it cannot give the results proved by actual fire experience in the use of the armoured door.

A somewhat parallel line of manufacture has been the production, since 1925, of steel rolling shutters, Although the majority of steel rolling shutters supplied by Mather & Platt Ltd., are installed for the normal purpose of providing access to a building for which they have many obvious advantages over wooden doors. They have fire resisting qualities, which bring them within the orbit of the fire engineering department. Furthermore, when Rolling Shutters are required for the definite purpose of providing a fire-resisting curtain they can be made to close automatically in case of fire and to comply with the requirements of the Fire Offices Committee. The Company pioneered the installation of electrically operated shutters and is one of the largest producers of steel rolling shutters in the country. Tens of thousands of shutters have been manufactured and installed in all parts of the world and under all conditions; located from the equator to the Polar regions and varying in application from a loading bay in an engineering works to installation on board ship including the famous aircraft carrier the “Ark Royal’ which was equipped with twenty Mather & Platt shutters at the time of the notorious nightly broadcast “Where is the Ark Royal?" Wags ‘in the know’ at Park Works were saying “They must be deaf, there are enough steel rolling shutters on her to hear her rattling along anywhere between Shanghai and Peru”.

Another product of the Department closely identified with the early days in the sprinkler business is the cast iron storage tank, built from standardised cast iron plates. This was designed originally as an adjunct to a sprinkler installation at a time when most sprinkler systems were fed by gravity and the erection of an overhead tank in one piece would have presented considerable difficulty but it is now employed for many other industrial purposes.

In 1932 Mather & Platt Ltd. entered the field of Industrial heating when they commenced to manufacture the ‘Thermolier’ Unit Heater which John Taylor had been used with great advantage in many modern American factories. His early model was based on the successful American design but it was later revised to conform to British Standards. Although British industrial conservatism formed a serious barrier to the initial acceptance of the Unit heater principle “Thermolier” heaters have new become firmly established.

The most far reaching twentieth century fire fighting development, however, with the possible exception of the quartzoid bulb Sprinkler, has been the invention of a new system of extinguishing fires involving oil and other inflammable liquids by the use of water. Changes in the nature of materials used in many industries and the increased use of lubricating oil and diesel oil in industry as a whole have brought with them additional fire risks unknown forty or fifty years ago. One means of localising oil fire and yet allowing it to burn without spreading or damaging surrounding plant until the source of ignition had been shut off, was discovered in 1931. The Protector Spray System employed an even distribution of a cooling element with the maximum conservation of water.

In the same year an entirely new system of protection for use against fires involving oils and oil products was devised by Mather & Platt Ltd at Park Works. The new system was given the trade name “Mulsifyre”, coined from the words “Emulsion” and “Fire”, the scientific idea behind the system being that water alone is used, applied in such a manner as to convert the surface of the burning liquid into a non-burning, oil-in-water emulsion. Fires are thus put out by fundamental means i.e. the temporary conversion of an inflammable liquid into a substance which cannot burn.

For many years the extinction of oil fires was one of the unsolved problems of the fire engineer. The almost universally accepted agent for suppressing fires, water was not only’ regarded, as useless but as positively dangerous when applied to oil fires by the methods known before the development of the ‘Mulsifyre’ system.

One positive step towards solving the problem of extinguishing oil fires was taken when foam was invented forty years ago. Foam does not burn and is lighter than oil, so that when flooded over the burning surface to a depth of several inches it brings about the extinction of fire by a smothering action. After the inert gas, carbon dioxide had become commercially available in liquidified form, contained under high pressure in strong steel cylinders; it afforded an additional method of smothering oil fires located in closed situations.

The staff of the Research Department of Mather & Platt Ltd, under the leadership of Dr. S.F. Barclay, made an entirely new approach to the subject, arising out of some years of study of emulsions and their formation. It is a fact well known to scientists that an oil-in-water emulsion is non-inflammable, for the reason that the oil is divided into minute globules separated from each other and covered by a film of water. To form such an emulsion, the surface of the oil must be violently agitated in order to bring about its disassociation into tiny globules.

Under the Mulsifyre system this is accomplished by bombarding the oil with water discharged under pressure through specially designed nozzles called “Projectors”.

Thus it will be seen that the “Mulsifyre” system goes to the root of the problem of oil fire extinction and because it deals with the cause, and not merely with the effect, emulsifying equipment is now accepted as a sure and reliable method of extinguishing all fires which involve inflammable liquids.

The process was first applied commercially in 1933 and since ‘that date hundreds of fixed “Mulsifyre” installations have been placed in commission. In application the Mulsifyre projectors are mounted on suitable pipe lines served with water at the necessary pressure; they may be located close to or at a considerable height above the oil surface, as circumstances may require. The equipment is normally brought into operation automatically in the event of an outbreak of fire, but manual control is provided to meet certain special conditions. The system has been patented in the principal countries of the world.

The chief applications of the Mulsifyre system have been in electricity power station and sub-stations. Many installations have been supplied to paint and varnish works, oil refineries and dry cleaning and waterproofing factories in many countries, including North and South America. 

A well-equipped demonstration ground at Park Works, designed to display the capabilities of the Mulsifyre system under realistic conditions, has been visited by many thousands of people from all parts of the world. The dramatic extinction of large and intense oil fires, within two or three seconds of the water being turned on, never fails to make a lasting impression on the mind of the observer. Although the basic principles behind the Automatic Sprinkler and Alarm system - when applied to ordinary commercial fire hazards remain as they were when Dowson & Taylor erected their first installation nearly seventy years ago, there has been a steady advance in the design of the component parts of an installation. In addition, the application of the Sprinkler system has been modified to provide protection against fire in some special risks. 

For example the Multiple Jet system provides an even distribution of water from several points simultaneously in order to control a fire which may break out in a situation where the presence of obstructions might prevent the discharge from one sprinkler from reaching the seat of a fire. Another variation of the Standard sprinkler system is the provision of external drenchers, designed to provide a curtain of water over the doors and. windows of a protected building so that flames are not able to pass from adjacent premises which may be on fire. 

One of the most interesting of modern advances in fire fighting is a new technique which has been developed to cope with the danger of fire in modern aircraft hangars. The rapid growth in the use of large passenger and freight carrying aircraft in recent years has meant a corresponding increase in the demand for more and more hangar space. Modern aircraft hangars are of necessity spacious and lofty buildings. Like the aircraft they are intended, to house, they are expensive to build, and their cost and importance demands that every precaution should be taken to guard against destruction by fire.

This object is achieved, by the Automatic Duo-Control Deluge system developed by Mather & Platt Ltd. Under this system each large hangar is divided into a number of zones and in the event of fire, water is discharged automatically over the whole of an affected area through a series of open drencher heads. Standard “Grinnell” heads are employed only for the detection of fire and a supplementary detector system known by the trade name of “Fyretron" is also employed; hence the term duo-control. From this it will be seen that the Fire Engineering Department, continuing to put its trust in water as the most effective medium with which to attack a fire, is facing the challenge of the future as confidently as it faced the challenge of seventy years ago.