Who Invented Fireproof Clothing?

The modern workplace is prepared for a greater number of dangers than ever, and trade workwear is available to handle and protect against specific types of dangers.

From clothing that helps protect against electrical hazards to clothing that helps to avoid accidents involving chainsaws, safety clothing comes in many shapes and sizes, but one of the earliest hazards clothing aimed to help protect from was from fire and flames.

 Textiles traditionally catch fire very easily, but fireproof overalls, clothes and coats exist to help protect people working in a variety of fields, but the genesis of the clothing worn by firefighters, pilots and racing drivers comes from the world of theatre.

The Iron Curtain

In 1794, the West End Theatre Royal on Drury Lane would become a vital part of safety history when it would install the first safety curtain on its stage.

Theatres, due to being primarily made of wood and textiles were prone to not only easily catching fire, but for these fires to rapidly get out of control, putting the entire patronage at risk.

To combat this, the Drury Lane theatre would use a heavy iron curtain, which not only provided physical protection but in combination with smoke doors at the back of the stage would serve as a giant chimney taking smoke up and out of the building rather than allowing it to spread.

However, as iron is a heavy, expensive and relatively crude method of protecting people from fire, there were other attempts to fireproof the textiles themselves, with the first attempts using clay and plaster of Paris to try and stop flames from spreading.

Early Experiments

The 19th Century brought with it the first serious attempts at making fireproof textiles, with one of the most important early contributors in this regard being Louis Joseph Gay-Lussac, who whilst experimenting with boron found two methods for fireproofing similar to those used today.

The first used a salt that melted at relatively low temperatures but produces a flame-resistant layer over fabrics, stopping them from catching fire and smothering flames before they started, whilst the other broke down into a vapour that was not flammable and stopped the spread of flames.

Both of his methods used borax and ammonium phosphates, but because the agent washed out of fabrics when it was cleaned, it would take until the discovery of stannic oxide by William Perkins to make fireproof clothing viable.