By Sivan Goren
Sometimes you come across an object that is not only ridiculously awesome but also has a story – not necessarily one relating to the specific object itself, but more about how it came to be. Such is the case with the object in question: an old Pyrene fire extinguisher. The story of this particular one, other than the fact that it was found years ago in the basement of the old Newtown branch of Standard Bank in Johannesburg, is not known. But the story behind how it and many more of these fire extinguishers came to be is an interesting one.
The story begins as far back as 1907, when a Scottish engineer had a brilliant idea for a fire extinguisher. Well, at least he thought so, but it seems that no one else in the UK felt the same and unable to get financial backing, he wound up taking his idea all the way across the sea – to the US of A. It was here that he eventually established what became known as the Pyrene Company of Delaware, in 1909. Then in 1914 a British offshoot, The Pyrene Company Limited, was founded by an American businessman in London and in 1920, a factory to manufacture fire extinguishers was established.
Pyrene pioneered the use of CTC (Carbon Tetrachloride) using a hand pump to expel the liquid onto the fire. The liquid would then vaporise and extinguish the flames by inhibiting the chemical chain reaction of the combustion process. The extinguishers were not pressurised, so could be refilled when low or empty with fire extinguishing liquid. Sadly, at the time, no one was aware of the fact that CTC vapour is highly toxic and potentially even more hazardous than the fire it was designed to extinguish, and several deaths occurred from using these extinguishers in confined spaces. Somewhat ironically, Pyrene conducted shocking and fear-inducing advertisement campaigns to sell their fire extinguishers, with lines like: ‘After they’re gone, when you are all alone and the memory that weighs upon the heart returns, the knowledge of what might have been prevented by a Pyrene Fire Extinguisher tortures you’.
The very earliest fire extinguishers were available in different materials, including enamelled metal, brass, or nickel-plated. During WWII, copper became scarce and brass was generally used. The 1916 patent saw various types of extinguisher on offer. Later, ‘Pyrene Junior’ fire extinguishers were developed for cars, boats and bikes. By 1924, The London General Omnibus Company (the principal bus operator in London between 1855 and 1933) awarded Pyrene the contract to supply all its vehicles with pump fire extinguishers. Over the years, Pyrene fire-fighting systems were also installed in a number of the world’s ships – even the famous Queen Mary. During WWII, the demand for fire-fighting equipment was high, and Pyrene were contracted to supply many companies and institutions.
Pyrene was taken over by Chubb and Sons in 1967 and continued to operate under the name Pyrene until 1971, when Chubb Fire Security Limited was formed. CTC extinguishers were withdrawn in the 1950s because of the chemical’s toxicity, and fire-fighting technology has come a long way since then. These days, though, the old CTC fire extinguishers have become sought-after collector’s pieces. Interestingly, most collectors of Pyrene fire extinguishers are also collectors of classic cars. Pyrene extinguishers were fitted to most commercial vehicles between the 1920s and ʼ60s, and many believe that installing one in their classic car adds authenticity, not to mention the cool factor.
So whether you want a period accessory for your classic, or you just think it looks good as an unusual ornament in your home, you can’t really go wrong with these vintage fire fighters. Just be sure that your CTC extinguisher is emptied of any remaining liquid by a professional before you add it to your collection. And if you are looking for something a little different, the old Pyrene adverts have a distinctive style all of their own and have become almost as collectible as the extinguishers they advertised. We also managed to track down a small Gacos extinguisher made by George Angus & Company in Johannesburg, with both English and Afrikaans etched into its brass casing – it even has its original wall bracket. A definite must-have collection of fire-fighting memorabilia… arguably the ultimate ‘hot’ addition to any man cave.