Napkin Sketch: Life-Saving Fire Hose Nozzles

Necessity is the mother of invention, but when three million gallons of liquid hydrocarbon explodes in front of you, waiting for mother to call isn’t an option. While the event was cataclysmic, it inspired the invention of the variable flow fire nozzle now used by fire departments around the world.

Volunteer firefighter Clyde McMillian arrived at The Standard Oil Company in Whiting, Indiana on the morning of August 27, 1955. Just after sunrise, the nation’s largest oil refinery erupted in a fireball so huge, residents thought it might be the end of the world. One witness said “I thought the sun had exploded,” while others were certain that Russia had finally dropped the atomic bomb on the United States. The blast shattered windows nearly 50 miles away.

McMillan was fighting the blaze to the best of his, and his fire hose’s, ability. When a tank of naphtha exploded, the nozzle on his hose did not have a spray pattern wide enough to protect him. His only choice was to drop the hose run. McMillan suffered third-degree burns on his back, legs, and arms. He was down, but he wasn’t going to let this happen to another firefighter.

Simply put: The nozzle was ineffective. The spray was inconsistent, and couldn’t compensate for unpredictable water pressures. After recovering, Clyde McMillian founded The Fire Task Force in Gary, Indiana. This new company focused on one thing: water.  

The Fire Task Force eventually became Task Force Tips, and grew into a trusted international company when McMillian began scribbling on a cocktail napkin. On May 10, 1968 he drew a diagram for a variable-speed, or “automatic,” nozzle. Similar to an automatic transmission in a car, the correct nozzle is automatically chosen as the speed of the water flow increases or decreases. 

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The original napkin sketch is on display in the Task Force Tips Fire Museum.

Success for his new company wasn’t immediate.  The first nozzle wasn’t sold until 1970, and by 1972 the business was still housed in the McMillian family basement. But good ideas find their way. By 1976, they were a $250,000 company (equivalent to $1.13 million today).

It’s a trait shared by our engineers at Custom Powder Systems. The ideas may seem fanciful at first, but the ultimate test is not what people think of the idea… but rather if the idea becomes useful. Some of our finest ideas have come from an off-handed comment while brainstorming, but good engineers know to file these ideas away. Sometimes on an app, sometimes in a file cabinet, and sometimes on a napkin.

Finding solutions is what we at Custom Powder Systems do each day. We are at our best when challenged by the things that other companies think can’t be done. We are always inspired by great thinkers like Clyde McMillan and appreciate good ideas can come to all of us at the most unexpected times.

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