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The Antique Fire Extinguisher - Its Appeal and History

    The antique fire extinguisher is a highly sought item among firefighting memorabilia collectors because of its beauty when fully restored.

    The brass or copper surface is polished to its original luster and then lacquer is reapplied to prevent corrosion. Sometimes the label is also polished and the letters are repainted.

    It is not unusual to find these vintage fire extinguishers being converted into lamps so friends and family can better appreciate their vintage appeal. They can be made operational once again but strictly speaking, would have to be recertified for fire use.

    Well-known brands of antique fire extinguishers included Pyrene, Fyr Fyter, Buffalo (QuickAid, SOS FireGuard), General, Empire, Elk/Elkhart, American LaFrance Foamite, Reddy, Randolph, Dietz, Badger, and Snyder & Son.

    You can find vintage fire extinguishers in Ebay for as low as $15 (less shipping). When these items have been professionally restored, buffed and polished they can easily fetch hundreds of dollars.

History of the Antique Fire Extinguisher

    The fire extinguisher first appeared in the early 1700s, consisting of a cask of fire-extinguishing liquid and a chamber which contained gunpowder. During a fire, the fuse is lighted, igniting the gunpowder charge which detonated the cask and released the firefighting liquid into the flames.

    In 1818 a British captain named George William Manby developed the first modern type of fire extinguisher. It contained a mixture of potassium carbonate (pearl ash) solution and compressed air in a copper cylinder. When operated, the compressed air would expel the potassium carbonate solution thus putting out the fire.

    The soda-acid fire extinguisher was patented by Francois Carlier, a Frenchman, in 1866. Carlier came up with a method of internally mixing water, tartaric acid, and sodium bicarbonate to produce carbon dioxide gas. In America, Almon Granger developed a formulation which mixed sulfuric acid with sodium bicarbonate instead, also producing carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide gas pressurizes the water which is then directed to the fire using a small hose.

    In 1905 the first chemical foam fire extinguisher appeared. It worked similar to the earlier soda-acid types, consisting of a mixture of a foaming compound, water, and sodium bicarbonate. Within the main cylinder there was a small chamber of aluminum sulfate sealed with a lead cap. When this type of antique fire extinguisher was inverted the chemicals would react, forming carbon dioxide gas discharged in a thick brownish foam.

    In 1912 a new type of antique fire extinguisher appeared, using carbon tetrachloride instead of carbon dioxide. This technology was pioneered by a New England company called Pyrene. This type can be distinguished by brass or chrome cylinder and a hand pump. It quickly became popular with the car industry at that time because it was suitable for electrical and liquid fires.

    Around this time a variant type was developed which housed the carbon tetrachloride liquid in glass bottle instead of a metal cylinder. This type of vintage fire extinguisher, also called a fire grenade, is designed to be thrown into the flames, releasing the carbon tetrachloride which would immediately vaporize into a blanket of fumes that starved the fire of oxygen. Later on, models of the fire grenade would appear where the fire itself would activate a mechanism that would pierce the glass container open.

    The carbon dioxide (CO2) fire extinguisher was produced by the Walter Kidde Company in 1924. This type was suitable for electrical fires due to the non-conductive nature of carbon dioxide. It is still popular today for being ozone-friendly.

    In 1928, DuGas (later acquired by Ansul) came out with a dry chemical fire extinguisher. This type contained a charge of sodium bicarbonate treated with chemicals to make it moisture-resistant. It was specially designed to handle gas fires.

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