Posted August 3, 2017

Given that SS Systems is 20 years old this week, I thought today I would take a look into the history of fire alarms and smoke detectors – sad I know but I’m sure you will allow me to indulge on this occasion.

1890 – First Electric Fire Alarm patented

According to Wikipedia, the first automatic electric fire alarm was patented by a guy called Francis Robbins Upton (alongside a Mr Fernando J Dibble), an associate of Thomas Edison. He was born in 1852 in Massachusetts, USA and was hired by Edison in 1878. Apparently, Francis Robbins Upton was good with his mathematics skills which is just what Edison needed to help turn his ideas into reality.

1902 – First European Electrical Heat Detector patented

A Birmingham man, George Andrew Darby, registered the first patent in Europe.

1930 – Failed attempts at a poison detector

Swiss physicist, Walter Jaeger, tried to invent a sensor for poison gas, but the device didn’t meet its purpose. Frustrated he lit a cigarette when he noticed that the meter on the instrument registered a drop in current. This, apparently, paved the way for the modern smoke detector.

1939 – Ionisation chamber and cold cathode

Swiss physicist, Ernst Meili, devised a mechanism capable of detecting combustible gases in mines. That, along with the invention of a cold cathode tube that could amplify the signal detected by the mechanism to a strength sufficient to activate an alarm, formed the beginnings of an electric smoke detector.

1951 – First smoke detector sold in the US

Used mainly in large buildings (due to cost), the first ionized smoke detectors were installed.

1955 – Domestic fire detectors introduced

Detectors able to detect high temperatures were developed for domestic properties.

1963 – First distribution license issued in US

The United States Atomic Energy Commission (USAEC) granted its first license to distribute smoke detectors using radioactive material. Scary!

1965 – Low cost detector introduced

Duane D Pearsall developed a low-cost smoke detector for domestic use, with an individual replaceable battery powered unit that could be easily installed.

1970 – Single Station Smoke Detector invented

An ionization detector powered by a single 9-volt battery was invented in 1970 and went into production the year after at a cost of $125. It sold at a rate of a few hundred thousand per year (currently around 30 to 40 million smoke alarms are sold in the UK).

1972 – Optical smoke detector invented

Known also as a photo-electric smoke alarm, it was invented by Donald Steele and Robert Emmark of Electro Signal Lab and patented the same year.

1975 – Mass Production begins

Duane D Pearsall’s company began mass production of the “SmokeGard 700” – a beehive shaped unit made out of strong, fire resistant steel.

1995 – Lithium battery powered detector introduced

The 10-year-lithium-battery-powered smoke alarm was introduced in 1995.

So there you have it! A brief history of the humble smoke detector. More facts and figures to be produced over the coming weeks as part of our 20th anniversary celebrations.