At the meeting of the National Association of Fire Engineers, held in Richmond in September last, the subject of automatic fire extinguishers was brought up by a communication presented by John W. Smith, Assistant Chief of the Brooklyn Department. The full report of the proceedings of the Convention, including the letter of Mr. Smith, was printed in THE JOURNAL at the time. A reply to that communication was recently prepared by the manufacturers of the automatic appliances alluded to, and has been incorporated in the pamphlet edition of the report of the Convention. In justice to all the parties, we reprint the letter of Chief Smith and the reply thereto. The Committee appointed by the Convention to investigate the matter has not yet reported. The following is the correspondence.


To the President and Officers composing the Eighth Annua/ Convention of Chiej Engineers of the Fire Departments of the United States:

GENTLEMEN :—Being unable to attend your Convention, from the fact ,’that the rules of this Department provide that both of the chief officers of this Department cannot be absent at the same time, and Chief Engineer Nevins being desirous of attending the Convention himself, and believing that the operation or non-operation of any apparatus used for the purpose of extinguishing lire* it a fair subject for discussion and examination by your body, l take the opportunity to bring before you the circumstances attending a fire which occurrr 1 in this city on August 11. 1880, at the cordage works of I,. Waterbury »Sr Co., whose factory was fitted with an automatic tire apparatus which failed to perform any work, and which so far as any good wax concerned was entirely useless, the lire attaining great headway, being only stopped by the combined exertions ol six companies of this Department, assisted by employees ot L. Waterbury Hi Co., without which I have no hesitation in saying the whole of said works would have been destroyed, the dan age to said premises being as near as could be ascertained upward ol $60,000. The apparatus in said factory was furnished by the Providence Go* and Steam Pipe Co., and is known as the Parmelee Automatic Apparatus.

Notwithstanding the above facts, the agents and manufacturers of this defective arrangement caused a circular to be printed containing a series of false and unwarranted statements in regard to the work performed by the said apparaius, and asserting that the same was admitted “ by the Ere Engineer who had charge of the fire,” which I hereby pronounce to be entirely fal e, and (urther ass rt:

1. That at the time ot said fire no person would have supposed there were any extinguishers in said building, so fieice was the fire, the iron shutters on the building being at a red heat before any water was put on from the outside.

u. The fire originated in an outside building, and burned up through an elevator into the third story of (he jenny-house, which was provided with automatics, one-half of which third story was entirely destroyed.

3. Said automatics neither stopped the fire from entering the jenny-house nor assisted the Department in any manner to extinguish the fire, but for ail practical purposes were entirely useless.

Having made these assertions, and having had command at the said fire and knowing how said extinguishers failed to perform what was cl-imcd for them, and it having been published that I admitted their good work, I deem ii a subject which your Convention should investigate, and would therefore respectfully ask that ihe Chief Engineers of New Yoik, Brooklyn and Newaik, N. J., be appointed a committee, and they be requested to examine into all ihe circumsiances attending said fire, and particularly the failure of said automatics to perfoim, and the truth or falsity of all reports in regard to said fire, and ihat they be authorized to publish the result of their inves igation as soon as comlpcted.

Very respectfully,

JOHN W. SMITH,. Asst. Chief, Brooklyn Eire Dept.

Chief McCool offered the following, which was accepted:

Resolved, ‘I hat the communication of Assistant Chief Engineer John W. Smith, of the Brooklyn Fire Department, in regard to a fire which occured at the cordage works of L. Waterbury & Co., in the city of Brooklyn, on August tl, 1880, be referred to Chiefs Thomas F. Nevins, of Brooklyn, (Eli Bates, of New York, and D. E. Benedict, of Newark, and that they be and are hereby authorized to publish the result of their investigations as soon as completed.

PROVIDENCE, R. I., February i3, 1882.

To the National Association of Fire Engineers :

We are pleased that the subject of Automatic Sprinklers was brought to your notice at the recent Convention at Richmond, but regret that it should have been presented by one of your members in the form of a personal attack upon our Company, and a sweeping condemnation of the Automatic Sprinkler, instead of a /air and business-like consideration of a subject so closely allied to your noble profession, and of such interest to the public.

The facts in relation to the operation of these Sprinklers in twenty-four actual fires might have been presented to the Convention, and we think an interesting and instructive discussion would have resulted.

The matter of the operation of the Sprinklers at the fire at the Cordage Works of Waterbury & Co. we are content to leave with the committee you have appointed, with the hope that they or some equal competent committee will extend the investigation to the numerous other fires which have occurred where the Sprinklers have worked. In answer to the accusation of John W. Smith (in a communication to your Convention, dated September loth, i88r,) that we have made false and unwarranted statements, we would state as follows: Immediately after the fire at the Cordage Works a report appeared in a Brooklyn paper condemning the entire apparatus we had supplied, and ignoring entirely the facts that the building suhere the fire started had no Sprinklers, and that the water pressure for those that did work was greatly impaired by the Department Steamers drawing water from the pipes which supplied them. We notice that Mr. Smith is careful not to set forth these all-important facts in his communication to you. In consequence of this report we printed a circular dated August 21, 1880, containing the facts as obtained from L. Waterbury & Co., and Mr. Edward Atkinson, one of your honorary members and president of the Boston Manufacturers’ Mutual Fire Insurance Company, where the property was largely insured. In confirmation of this we print herewith a letter from Mr. Atkinson giving his views in reference to Mr. Smith’s communication to your Convention :


BOSTON, February 4th, 1882. FRKDKRK K GRINNELL, Esq. Prat, of the Providence Steam & Gas Pipe Co., Pnnddenct, N. I.

DEAR SIR : Having been requested by you to read a letter from the Assistant Chief of the Brooklyn Fire Department, published in THE FIREMAN’S JOURNAL of Oct. 1, 1881 ; regarding the working of the Parmelee Automatic Sprinklers at a fire which occurred in the works of L. Waterbury & Co., in Brooklyn, on the nth of August, 1880. 1 beg t > reply as follows:

Your statement made in a report ot the working of the Parmelee Autotomatic Sprinklers, printed upon page 4 ot a folio pamphlet, in which you gave me a list of the excellent work done by the Parmelee Sprinklers In a large number of fires, is correct according to the examination made by me immediately after the fire, so far as it relates to the circumstances of the fire and the working of the Sprinkler. Whether or not the Fire Engineer who had charge of the fire testified to the facts in the case, I am not in a position to say. The fire caused me great anxiety, because in the first account given in the papers, it was alleged that the Automatic Sprinkler had failed. I therefore hastened to the place ns soon as possible, and took great pains to examine the premises and to determine the questions at issue. I took the testimony of a certain Engineer, if not the one in charge, and ot Firemen who were present and who worked upon the Fire,

I also took the testimony of employees in the yard, and of the owners and managers ot the works, and I reached the following conclusions as a basis for future action in other premises.

First. The Automatic Fire extinguishers had not been placed in the store house which was destroyed, because no serious danger was anticipated in that building. In this conclusion we counted without the incendiary who set it on fire; and afterward advised the owners to fit their new storehouse with the same sprinklers.

Second. I was satisfied that if the Automatic Sprinkler had not operated and wet down the ‘’jenny house,” so called, or main factory building, before the Firemen began to work upon it, that it would have been in such a state of combustion that they could not have approacned it near enough for effective service on account of the heat, and it might therefore have been destroyed in spite of their efforts. I also leArned this lesson, that the pipe supplying the Sprinklers should be, if possible, independent of the pipe supplying the hydrants, as I am satisfied that when six or seven Steam Fire Engines were attached to the main pipe supplying water at the fire the head was drawn away from the Spinklers and they ceased in fact to do their wqjk for that reason only. I am of opinion that the very efficient Fire Department of Brooklyn was greatly aided by the Automatic Sprinklers, and that they would probably have been unable to save the main works of L. Waterbury & Co. without them.

It is perhaps to be expected that there may be a difference in judgment between the officers of mutual insurance companies whose function is that of preventing dangerous fires from occurring, and Fire Engineers of even such admitted skill and courage, whose work is that of putting them out when they do occur, yet I can hardly comprehend the reason why a gentleman who must be competent to lead and control a skilled Fire Department should find it necessary to pronounce an apparatus ” entirely useless,” the value of which is so fully established as that of the Automatic Sprinkler, and of which he can have had so little knowledge, nor do 1 think it augers well for the witness that it should be found necessary to allege that your statements in regard to the work of this apparatus are either ” false or unwarranted.’’

I therefore trust that the able committee of the well known Chief Engineers of other Fire Departments, to whom this subject has been referred, will take competent testimony in the matter, and give you an impartial judgment upon a subject in which the public have as great, and perhaps a much greater, interest than the Fire Department themselves.

Yours very truly,


Later, January 3, 1881, we issued a circular giving an account of the wording of the Sprinklers in sixteen (16) fires, including that at the Cordage Works. In this account we stated as follows: “All of the Sprinklers in that half of the third-story, where the fire entered, unsoldered ; and by wetting down the building and contents, which consisted of loose hemp, saved the property, as acknowledged by the owners and the Fire Engineer who had charge of the fire.”

So far as the Engineer alluded to being “in charge of the fire” is concerned we were mistaken, as admitted and explained in a letter from our agent, Mr. Horack, to Mr. Smith, in answer to a letter from Mr. Smith demanding that we publicly retract that part of our statement.

NEW YORK, August 31, 1881. JOHN W. SMITH, ESQ., Assistant Chief Brooklyn Fire Department, 218 Fourth St., Brooklyn, E. D., N. Y.

DEAR SIR :—Mr. Grinnell, the President of our Company, has forwarded to me your letter of the 20th inst., which he had received only a few days ago, owing to his absence from Providence. As I am more familiar with the circumstances attending the fire at the Waterbury Cordage Works, he has requested me to reply to the same. Allow me first to call your attention to an error in your letter. You claim that Mr. Grinnell states that the Sprinklers in that part of the third story where the fire entered, saved the contents (loose hemp), while in reality he stated that they saved the property, which means the surrounding buildings. However, it is a fact that he is mistaken in saying, “as acknowledged ’’ by the owners and the Fire Engineer who had charge of the fire. All the information obtained on the subject by Mr. Grinnell came to him either through Messrs*Waterbury & Co., Mr. Edward Atkinson, President of B. M. M. Ins. Co., or myself, and upon these statements he based his report of January 3, 1881.

Messrs. Waterbury & Co., in a letter to us, dated August 18, 1880, in which they give a full account of the fire and the part which our Automatics took in extinguishing the same, remark: “As it appears from the testimony of one of the leading officers of the Brooklyn Fire Department, these sprinklers greatly assisted the Firemen in extinguishing the fire, enabled them to remain on the ground, and contributed largely toward saving the stories below and all our adjoining property,” and, as Mr. Grinnell has never had an opportunity to make an investigation himself, he very naturally assumed that they referred to the Engineer in charge oj the fire. His report of January 3, 1881, was not shown to me before it was published, as at that time I was obliged to go South on account of ill health. Of course, nobody who investigated said fire in an unbiased manner can take exception to any of the other statements made in regard to it by Mr. Grinnell, and it is a source of special gratification to us that the owners of the factory and the insurance companies who had to pay for the loss, as well as experienced and fair-minded Firemen who assisted in extinguishing the same, all joined in giving due credit to our Sprinklers, without, however, desiring to detract in the least from the very efficient services rendered by your Department.

I did not call upon you for information, as I knew that you had been trying to introduce an Automatic Sprinkler of your own, and learned that long before the fire you had made unfavorable remarks in regard to our appliances. T felt thetas human nature is about the same all the world over, it would be putting you in a very trying position, where you were just struggling for recognition without, however, meeting with much encouragement, to ask you to pass upon the merits of a more successful rival without prejudice and without using your official position to injure the same.

However, we wish to be accurate in all our statements, and are obliged to you for calling our attention to the unintentional error in Mr. Grinnell’s report. Probably before long we will have occasion to issue a pamphlet describing the many fires in mills fitted up by us, all of which our Automatics helped to extinguish (a report relating to the twenty-fourth fire is enclosed), and will not fail to then modify the statement to which you object in a proper way. If, however, you consider that the public interest demands a correction on your part sooner, we will cheerfully assist you in making the same, and if it should appear to you that this might be accomplished by publishing the above letter you are hereby authorized to do so.

Yours, respectfully, C. L. HORACE,

General Agent.

It will be seen that this letter, which we give in full, in which we offered to publicly correct our mistake, was written to Mr. Smith before he made his communication to your Convention.

Mr. Smith has a perfect right to his opinion as to the working of the Automatic Sprinklers at the Waterbury fire, and we admit that it is a fair matter to bring to your attention, but we hold that it is a matter of opinion, and that Mr. Smith is in no manner justified in asserting that our statements are “ unwarranted and false” because he differs in opinion from those from whom we obtained our information. He has certainly no occasion to defend the Brooklyn Fire Department, for neither we nor our informants have thought to reflect upon it in the slightest degree.

We care nothing for his opinion of Automatic Sprinklets, especially as he shows his entire ignorance of the subject by patenting and trying to introduce a sprinkler which has to be set on fire by actual contact with flame instead of operating in heated air. We regret, however, that with no justification and no reason save his own prejudice, he should be able to use the pages of your official publication to assail the reputation of our company. We now ask as our right that you require of the Committee appointed that full investigation which any member of your Association would ask if his personal character had been meanly and unjustifiably assailed in public print. Our introduction to your Association has been an unpleasant one, but we believe in this case as in others, that “ out of evil good may come,” and that our future acquaintance will prove mutually pleasant and instructive.

We are, very respectfully,






We have seen frequent notices of Parmlee’s Automatic Fire Extinguisher, and have, on one or two occasions, commented on its working. This is used mainly in the mills of New England, and is highly recommended by mill owners and by the mill mutual insurance companies. This device consists of a series of perforated pipes placed about the ceiling of the room, connected with a water supply pipe. This is so arranged that, at a given degree of heat, the cap that confines the water is melted, and water flows into the perforated pipe, whence it is projected in innumerable small streams into the room beneath. If a fire is raging in any portion of the room it is very likely to be extinguished by this automatic shower of artificial rain. For drowning out a building this is, unquestionably, an excellent device ; it may work satisfactorily in mills, but if applied to buildings in which destructible goods are stored, we should imagine it would do more harm than good ; water is quite as destructive to perishable goods as fire. But the success of the Parmlee device has brought others of a similar nature to the front, and we notice by our exchanges that Barnes’ Automatic Fire Extinguisher has been on exhibition in S’. Louis recently, and was subjected to several tests of its practical workings and efficiency in extinguishing incipient fires. The arrangements for a grand fire at these test trials were such as are usually made for testing the efficiency of fire extinguishers. When everything was ready for the burning of the building prepared for that purpose, with the extinguisher properly arranged, a fire was started among shavings saturated with oils, etc., inside the house, and there left to work out their destiny without human assistance. In a few moments after this, the automatic extinguisher began its work, and before any considerable amount of burning had occurred, the fire was out. According to the papers, the same result would have been accomplished if everyone present had been a mile off and sound asleep. If no one had been present to shut off the water when the experiment was ended, the automatic would have been throwing water till this time, and treated St. Louis to a second edition of the deluge. This is the trouble with all automatic arrangements for fire extinguishment—unless watched over by human intelligence they are liable to do more damage than the flames. Indeed, we do not believe that, even with the aid of human intelligence, they can be so directed as to be available except in isolated cases. A good many years ago—some time before the war—we saw just such a contrivance placed in a building on the East side in this city, and a great parade was made over it. There were a few exhibitions given, when it was discovered that a flood was as bad as a conflagration, and the apparatus was taken out and discarded. It was not heard from again until the idea was revived by Mr. Parmlee and adapted to the protection of mihs. Fighting fire is a science, and to do it effectually and economically requires years of practical training. Good judgment, wise discrimination, and a quick conception of the requirements of the emergency are essential qualifications for dealing with’fires, and until machinery can be made that can reason and act at the same time, there is little prospect of automatic apparatus supplying the place of trained Firemen. ,

At a recent fire in Boston, owing to the faulty construction of the building, much damage was caused by water, which led the Boston Journal to comment as follows : “ The recent fire in Winthrop Square and its consequent damage to an immense stock of merchandise by water alone, suggests the idea that if the floors in the building had been made water-tight, as they could easily have been, the damage by water in the lower stories, which were untouched by the flames, would have been very small. These c mstantly occurring fires in wholesale warehouses, containing, as they do, immensely valuable stocks of merchandise, make it evident that the buildings containing them are not what they should be. We have got rid, in the burnt district at least, of the tinder roofs and slender walls of the ante great fire of 1872 period. What seems to be wanting now are water-tight floors, walls containing no combustible material to feed the fire, and pillars to support the floors which will not crumble at the first touch of the destroying element. If these were supplemented by such a construction of the floors that they could easily ana quickly be flooded to a depth of two or three inches from s’and pipes, and kept so flooded, it would seem as if the greater number of th fires iti buildings thus arranged could be easily and quickly controlled, especially if a faithful watchman is employed.”