Chief Dorhauer's Talking Public Safety column this week is focused on the invention of the 'Panic Bar.'

Have you ever looked at something and wondered: Who thought of this, and why? Sometimes as I look around at everyday items I wonder the origins of these simple things. One of the most common items we see on commercial buildings is hardware on exit doors that allows doors to remain locked from the outside yet open from the inside in an emergency. This generally is known as “Panic Hardware” and was developed as a result of a tragic fire on December 30, 1903.

The Iroquois Theatre, in Chicago, first opened its doors on November 23, 1903. The large theatre that could hold some 2,000 guest was advertised as absolutely fireproof. I have learned over the years that anything that offers an absolute statement should be approached with caution, such as the Titanic.

With the theatre open less than two weeks and many children out of school for Christmas Holidays the December 30 matinee showing of the musical Mr. Bluebeard was a sold out show. During the performance an arc light was believed to have shorted out igniting a curtain on fire. An arc light was a bulb that produced light by electric arcing. This type of light was one of the first produced for electric light and was commonly used larger areas or as street lighting.

The fire that began on the curtain quickly spread to backdrops in areas high above the stage. Thousands of painted canvas scenery and backdrops were hung in this area and the “Absolute Fireproof Theatre” was quickly engulfed in flames. Many of the exit doors on the Theatre were equipped with a lock called a Bascule lock. While considered to be an exit type locking mechanism it was more common in Europe and was not used in the United States. When fire broke out and began to spread the occupants tried exit the building. Many exit doors were blocked, covered or locked; some of the doors which were locked had these bascule locking devices and no one knew how to operate them.  Dozens died in front of these locked doors either from burns, smoke inhalation, or from being crushed up against the door by those desperate to escape.

The fire that day took the lives of 603 people in less than a twenty minute time span.

Hardware salesman Carl Prinzler wanted to make sure a tragedy such as this never would again occur and set out to invent the first panic bar. This panic bar, know used worldwide, has been credited to have saved over a million lives since its inception. Ironically Carl Prinzler had planned to attend that matinee at the Iroquois Theatre on December 30 but changed his plans at the last minute.

While every invention we see in our day to day lives does not have this dramatic history, they all have a story to be told.