The Modern-Day Fire Extinguisher Was Inspired By This Black Man’s Invention

Man believed to be Thomas J. Martin/Photo via: The Black Wall Street Times
Man believed to be Thomas J. Martin/Photo via: The Black Wall Street Times


Thomas Jefferson Martin received a patent for his fire extinguisher on March 26, 1872. His work was recognized by the United States Patent and Trademark Office in Washington, D.C. under patent number 125,063 for improving an earlier model of the fire extinguisher.

Captain George William Manby was the first to propose a modern style of fire extinguisher in 1818, but Martin is credited with inventing the first practical extinguisher that used machinery.

Martin was born to John Martin and Sarah Thweat Martin on May 29, 1842. His parents were from South Carolina, where they married and moved to Shelby County, Alabama, in 1820. They had 11 children, five of whom survived in 1904.

According to The Black Wall Street Times, Martin was a merchant who lived on a farm near Harpersville, Alabama. His father was a prosperous farmer and Democrat who attended the Baptist church.

Martin spent his childhood on the farm and received a basic education. He enlisted and participated in the Civil War. He enlisted in the Eighteenth Alabama Infantry’s private company, but he was wounded in the battle of Shiloh. He left the army after becoming incapacitated.

When he returned home, he started a mercantile business in Harpersville in 1866, which he ran successfully until 1897. Around this time, he invented a system that pumps water through pipes in buildings to individual sprinkler heads. The system could be manually activated by turning a valve in the building.

Martin’s fire extinguishing sprinkler system has been in use in the United States since 1874. It was used to put out industrial fires in large factories. Sprinkler systems in modern times are required by code in the United States to be installed in buildings as tall as 75 feet.

Sprinkler systems are more effective than fire hoses at putting out a fire that has engulfed a building. This is due to the fact that it can move water through the system in four seconds. The sprinkler system has the capability of putting out flames before the fire department arrives in response to a distress call. This aids in reducing fires to manageable levels, which should not pose a problem for the fire department when they arrive at the disaster site.

A description of Martin’s invention from the awarded patent says: The nature of invention relates to the construction, arrangement and combination of suitable pipes and valves for conducting water from suitable reservoirs to buildings by means of stationary engines, for the purpose of preventing or extinguishing fires in dwellings, mills, factories, towns and cities and may also be used for warning, ventilating and washing buildings and for washing pavements and sprinkling streets.

Overall, records show that Martin’s fire extinguisher was intended to be connected to a reservoir of stored water and used to sprinkle water onto blazing flames.


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