Grinnell Co.
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Survey and Research
Report On The Grinnell/General Fire Extinguisher Company Complex
THE EARLY HISTORY OF GRINNELL CORPORATION AND THE FIRE SPRINKLER INDUSTRY - compiled in 1996 by Jerome S. Pepi, Vice President, Research and Development Fire Protection Products.
Précis:- The origin of Grinnell, and its contributions to the development of the fire sprinkler industry, rests with the Providence Steam and Gas Pipe Company that grew out of a partnership formed in 1850, in Providence, Rhode Island by William Barbour and Thomas Angell. Its headquarters was a 2400-square foot section of the machine shop of the Providence and Worcester Railroad. The company's early products included water pipes and devices for heating with exhaust steam from Corliss steam engines as well as erection of plants for making gas from rosin, crude oil, and coal.

Various changes of partners occurred up to February of 1869 when, at the age of 33, Frederick Grinnell purchased a controlling interest and became President of the growing company. Previously, Mr. Grinnell had been Superintendent of the Works as well as Treasurer for Corliss Steam Engine and Manager of Jersey City Locomotive.

Frederick GrinnellIt was also in about 1869 that Mr. Grinnell became acquainted with a James Francis of Lowell, Massachusetts. He was a hydraulics engineer who was in charge of apportioning the water power obtained from the Merrimac River to the area's great textile mills. Mr. Francis was also assigned the responsibility for planning a comprehensive system of fire protection for these mills and he contracted with Mr.Grinnell's company to install "perforated pipe" systems. The concept of perforated pipe fire sprinkler systems had been invented in 1806 by John Carey, in England.

Although various improvements were made and systems installed over the years, there was no real commercial success with perforated pipe systems until their installation in the Lowell mills.

Francis designed a two-million gallon reservoir and a system of underground cast-iron branch mains to connect the reservoir to several mills. Perforated wrought-iron sprinkler piping was installed near the mill ceilings and connected, in sections, to a supply pipe. An outside water control valve, which joined the supply pipe to the hydrant service, was opened manually in the event of a fire, and water was discharged in small jets over the connected area. The underwriters and mill associations quickly accepted the Francis system. Soon after, the Providence Steam and Gas Pipe Company began installing similar systems in the Fall River, Massachusetts mills as well as elsewhere.

The success of perforated sprinkler piping systems was relatively short lived, however, because of a combination of excess water damage; depletion of the water supplies due to the unnecessary opening of too many valves; and lack of automatic operation. The lack of automatic operation was the greatest user objection. Manual operation provided inadequate response since nearly all of the highly destructive fires in mills occurred at night, with a large percentage of these being due to spontaneous combustion, when there was no one in attendance.

Mr. Grinnell's career as an inventor really began in the late 1870s, and his initial efforts were directed at overcoming these objections to the perforated pipe system. His first patent, on March 12, 1878, concerned perforated "sprinkling-tube" that had the holes bushed with a non-corrodible material such as brass. This would tend to indicate that potential clogging of the perforations due to oxidation of the iron pipe was also a major problem that needed to be resolved. Various improvements were made by Mr. Grinnell over the next few years to obtain automatic operation over limited areas, but the parallel development of the automatic sprinkler signaled the demise of perforated sprinkler piping.

A British inventor, Major A. S. Harrison, had invented the first fully automatic extinguishing device in 1864. However, he abandoned the work and did not seek a patent because he could not establish any interest in the British business community. Grinnell Fire Wagon

The first practical automatic sprinkler, which marks the beginning of the fire sprinkler industry as we know it, was patented by Henry S. Parmelee of New Haven, Connecticut on August 11, 1874, and installed in the Mathushek Piano Mfg. Company that was owned by him. Even a sprinkler operation alarm was included. The device included a supply valve which was held closed by a slug of fusible solder. Melting of the solder released the supply valve and allowed the water to be discharged through the perforated chamber. Operation of the sprinkler released cords that held the supply valve closed and also released an alarm valve located underneath a steam whistle.

On January 26, 1875, Mr. Parmelee patented a second sprinkler design that differed from the first in that it had a cap over the perforated distributor, the cap being held in place by fusible solder. Parmelee replaced the initial design sprinklers with the second, and the first step towards commercialization took place when sprinklers of the second design were purchased later that year by a Thomas J. Borden, for installation in two Fall River, Massachusetts, mills in which he was a major stockholder. Shortly thereafter, Parmelee's business associates asked him to design sprinkler systems for their factories. Realizing the potential, he formed the Parmelee Sprinkler Company and contracted with the Providence Steam and Gas Pipe Company to install the systems. Three years later, in early 1878, Frederick Grinnell entered into an agreement with Henry Parmelee to manufacture the Parmelee sprinklers on a royalty basis.

On July 2, 1878, Mr. Parmelee patented yet another sprinkler design, his fifth, which had a rotary distributor. In order to put this new sprinkler on a firm commercial basis, Mr. Grinnell incorporated some design changes to reduce cost and, at the same time, improve its sensitivity as well as to provide more uniform water distribution. The commercialized version was installed in thousands over the next three years.The initial installations were confined almost entirely to textile mills, although a few manufacturing plants were also sprinklered. The H. B. Claflin Dry Goods Co. of New York City held the distinction of being the first store to be equipped with automatic sprinklers, almost a thousand of the Parmelee heads being installed there in November 1878.

The comparative novelty of automatic sprinklers made a great deal of missionary work necessary before prospective customers could be convinced of their value. The early sales work usually included practical demonstrations, and for the first few years of the business, it was standard procedure to give an exhibit of the workings of the system to prospective customers. This was accomplished by constructing a 20 ft. by 30 ft. building and performing fire tests to demonstrate complete operation of an automatic sprinkler system. As time progressed, however, it was the successful operation in actual fires that paved the way to general acceptance by the insurers and, ultimately, by the specification of automatic sprinklers. Grinnell Sprinkler Head Collection

With the growing fire test experience, it apparently became clear to Mr. Grinnell that further improvements were needed in the sensitivity and the uniformity of the water distribution provided by the Parmelee Sprinkler, especially in manufacturing plants where loose flammable material could readily result in a rapid fire spread. Consequently, he embarked on the development of a new type of automatic sprinkler, and on October 21, 1881, received four patents on the vital points of the pendent sprinkler. This device has become known as "the first sensitive sprinkler".

A wall-mount storage box marked on front "Grinnell Automatic Sprinklers, G, Reserve Supply". Size 12" x 8 1/2" x 2 3/4". Inside of door has a Grinnell Company label with pictures, dated at base 3-37. Box contains 11 out of an original 12 replacement sprinklers. Outside of box has been painted white and has some wear; inside of box and label are in very good condition with some light wear.

The improvements addressed thermal sensitivity; prevention of clogging; leak tightness under all conditions of pressure and water hammer; as well as, the necessity for completely rupturing the solder joint before any water could escape to cool the solder. Water discharge was through a half-inch hole instead of from fine slots or perforations, and distributed by means of a tooth-edged deflector. Thus, the standard orifice sprinkler was born. Available records indicate that Mr. Grinnell approached the thermal sensitivity issue with rigorous experimentation, and that he was the first to utilize an air-oven response time evaluation. It is generally acknowledged that this new sprinkler was superior to any other sprinkler of its time and was produced from 1882 until late 1890. It was reported that, over this period, the new sprinklers were installed in over 10,000 buildings and that more than 1,000 fires were extinguished.

In 1883, Sir William Mather, a distinguished English industrialist, visited the United States as a member of a Royal Commission on Technical Education. Hearing of Grinnell's new sprinkler, Mather visited him in Providence, Rhode Island and acquired the rights to the new sprinkler for the entire Eastern Hemisphere. Soon after, the new firm of Mather & Platt Ltd. introduced the new sprinkler to Europe, Australia, and India. The sprinklers were known as "Grinnells" and, in French, the word for sprinkler remains "Le Grinnell".

Although the new sprinkler was a commercial success, Mr. Grinnell began development work on a new and improved type of sprinkler in the mid-1880's. Three patents, which were secured in July of 1890, indicate that he had learned from experience that a non-metallic valve seat was desirable in order to avoid corrosion and sticking of the metallic surfaces in contact with each other. In addition, a fixed deflector for distributing the water was preferable to a moveable deflector, where dust and dirt could load on the sprinkler, rendering it inoperable. The improved sprinkler, with the orifice seat sealed by a glass disc was produced and as of 1902, approximately 5 million of the "1890 improved sprinklers" had been installed. In 1903, further changes were incorporated into the design of the glass disc sealed sprinkler, and as of 1912, about 15 million had been installed on a worldwide basis. Up to January 1, 1896, about 25,000 successful fire extinguishments had been reported for the Grinnell sprinklers.

In 1892, Frederick Grinnell brought about the consolidation of the Providence Steam and Gas Pipe Company with the Neracher and Hill Sprinkler Company of Warren, Ohio and the Automatic Fire Alarm and Extinguisher Company of New York, under the name of the General Fire Extinguisher Company. The company was incorporated in 1893 with a capitalization of $1,000,000 and this name was retained until 1944, when it was changed to Grinnell Corporation.


As of January 2, 1893, Frederick Grinnell had been awarded 41 U.S. Letters Patents and, he was co-inventor with his brother Richard W. Grinnell on 5 others. On that date, the rights to all of these patents were assigned to the General Fire Extinguisher Company for the sum of ten dollars.


By 1895, varied automatic sprinkler system installation practices, the first complaints of improperly installed sprinklers, and inconsistencies in the insurance rating industry became a concern to the fire insurance industry as well as sprinkler manufacturers and installers. As a result, representatives of five New England mutual insurance companies and Frederick Grinnell met in New York City on November 20, 1896, to form the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The initial membership consisted of 20 rating organizations and inspection bureaux. (Photograph) Grinnell Pipe production lines for the prefabrication of pipes and couplings for sprinkler installations.

1. Greene, W. A. et al., The Providence Plantations for Two Hundred and Fifty Years, J. A. & R. A. Reid Publishers, 1886.
2. Williams, A. M. and Blanding, W. F., Men of Progress, New England Magazine, 1896.
3. Hall, J. D., Jr., Biographical History of the Manufacturers and Business Men of Rhode Island, J. D. Hall & Co. Publishers, 1901
4. United States Sprinkler Bulletin, The General Fire Extinguisher Company, December 1905.
NFPA5. Meloon, J. C., The Early History of Automatic Sprinklers, The General Fire Extinguisher Company, Internal Report, February 1912.
6. Grinnell -1850 to 1950, Grinnell Corporation, 1950.
7. Johnson, A. and Malone, D., Dictionary of American Biography - Volume IV, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1966.
8. Mulrine, J. F., The Sprinkler, First Line of Defense for 257 Years, Firehouse Magazine, July 1980.
9. Conley, P. T. and Campbell, P. R., Firefighters and Fires in Providence", The Rhode Island Publications Society and The Donning Company/Publishers, 1985.

The Grinnell Co. fell victim in the mid 1960s to antitrust laws [USv Grinnell Corp. (1966) ]. In 1986 the company name became Grinnell Corporation. As of May 2000, the Grinnell Corporation name was again changed to Anvil International, Incorporated.