The fire extinguisher

After the Great Fire of London in 1666 there was a gradual move towards organised firefighting (initially by insurance companies, who instructed their firemen to drench clients’ buildings only!). It took another 150 years for the concept to emerge of keeping purpose-made fire extinguishers to hand, other than buckets. Captain George William Manby (1765-1854) from Norfolk witnessed a house fire in Edinburgh and resolved to create an appliance that would stop a small blaze in its tracks.

He devised a portable copper cylinder holding 3 gallons of potassium carbonate solution pressurised to 145psi. Modern fire extinguishers are similar in appearance but use foam, powder, CO₂ or water, to suit particular potential dangers, e.g. electrical. In 2010, Britannia Fire Ltd., also in Norfolk, invented the first maintenance-free fire extinguisher, the P50.

Captain Manby’s fire-fighting device had already saved hundreds of lives before he died and yet he also had another life-saving innovation to his name ~ ‘Manby’s Mortar’, first used in 1808. It is said that Manby watched the tragic drowning of everyone on board a ship wrecked on the Norfolk coast in 1807. In frustration he then invented an ‘apparatus’ ~ a stone block which catapulted a secured rope over a ship’s hull to provide the means of escape.

(Image of Capt. Manby [cropped]: Wellcome Collection at Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0)


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