Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Pain of Pyrene

1920 Pyrene Fire Extinguishers

It's Saturday, time to kick back, relax and take some time away from chasing down vintage recipes and advertisements.  Since I'm in such a goofy mood (too many Newcastle Ales will do that to you) I decided to be silly today.  No, really silly, like this ad.  Look at this ad and you can easily imagine the conversation... "See here Margaret, I could just go over there and lend the fire brigade a hand with my Pyrene fire extinguisher, it wouldn't take but a moment."  Alright, so that's not really the conversation, the ad is a bit more boring and dry in it's text.  The husband is quoting that he can sleep well in a Pullman Berth knowing the family has a Pyrene fire extinguisher at home.  I suppose the risk of fire in the home was ever present back then (this ad is from 1920) because most homes were not electrified yet and used a combination of city gas and kerosene lamps to light the home.

So what is a Pyrene Fire Extinguisher you ask?  Well you've come to the right place if you want to learn all about early 20th Century firefighting techniques.  Of course the oldest type of fire extinguisher is the big brass and copper "Soda Water" types, these have been around since the early 1800's at least.  Pyrene came around in 1910 and made use of Carbon Tetrachloride to fight fires by smothering them.  Fantastic, we can either burn to death or choke on a cloud of noxious chemical fumes, what were they thinking?  CT was the favorite of fire companies until 1950 when it was pulled from the market.

This is for sale online

See, Carbon Tetrachloride has 2 nasty side effects, the first being that is poisonous when inhaled, but the second is more insidious and was discovered later when they started marketing these "Fire Grenades" I have pictured here.  The grenade was hurled at the base of the fire thereby choking it out, but if the fire was hot enough it would convert the CT into Phosgene Gas.  Yeah go Google that one and discover that Phosgene was a popular compound used by the German army in The Great War (WWI) as a chemical warfare agent.  Nasty stuff really as it turns your lungs to green goop and then you vomit them up before dieing.
Red Comet Fire Grenade

So, where was I?  Ah yes, CT Pyrene fire extinguishers, not the more brilliant idea but I'm sure that they prevented some fires in the 40 some odd years that it was used as a fire suppressant.  You can still find these old extinguishers online and the fire grenades show up from time to time as well.  Handle them with caution as exposure to Carbon Tetrachloride affects the Liver and Kidneys leading to Cancer and failure of said organs.  As an interesting side note, a 2008 study found that cleaning agents containing bleach have an unsafe amount of Carbon Tetrachloride in them due to the bleach reacting with soap in the cleansers.  Want to know a safer and more environmentally safe way of cleaning your home?  Read my Sunday article to find out!


  1. how do i clean an old soda water extinguisher it has a film all over it but i dont want to damage the value of it?

    1. I assume you're talking about the old brass ones? I would try taking some white vinegar and adding a little kosher salt to it. Dampen a cloth with this and rub a little on an inconspicuous spot to see if this helps. Honestly I'm not a professional restorer and certain things done to antique items lessens their value (like polishing brass) so proceed with caution.


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