Duane Pearsall (1922 - 2010) is best known for developing the battery operated smoke detector for residential use, an accidental invention saving lives since the 1970s.

Pearsall lived a modest life with his family. Upon graduating High School, he attended General Motors Institute (now Kettering University). He graduated from General Motors Institute after two years and due to World War II, Pearsall served in the Naval Air Corps from 1942 to 1945. He first served as a Navigator attached to a submarine patrol squadron, and then as a pilot. Flying remained an important thread through Pearsall’s young life, even owning and operating a small learn-to-fly business.

Pearsall began his post-Navy career working for Honeywell Corporation in 1948. Seven years later, he left Honeywell Corporation to found Pearsall Company, which focused mainly on the production of static control devices. In 1963, Pearsall founded Statitrol Corporation in Lakewood, Colorado, which initially focused on manufacturing commercial static control devices for industry. Failure of devices in the field prompted testing in the engineering lab. While engineer and inventor, Lyman Blackwell, worked on the problem, a smoking colleague entered the room. Inadvertently, the particles of combustion from the cigarette interrupted the flow of ions and caused a change in the ionization meter readings. The idea of abandoning the manufacture of the Static Neutralizer to pursue the invention of a battery operated home smoke detector was born.

Pearsall began a journey to develop, and later market, the first home battery-powered ionization smoke detector. The use of common batteries in the detector made it a simple and relatively inexpensive for consumers to purchase them. The result was life-saving.

The first unit developed and marketed was named the “SmokeGard 700”. Though it was developed in 1968, the SmokeGard 700 did not receive its Underwriter Laboratory approval until 1973, due to a lack of tests available for this new technology. In 1975, the beginning of mass production of smoke detection units by Statitrol began. Since this was an incredibly new technology, Pearsall faced many roadblocks with receiving patent approval and gaining support in the fire protection community.

During the years between the original development of the battery-powered ionization smoke detector and the awarding of UL approval, Pearsall worked with the national Fire Protection Association to help change ideas about the detector and fire protection of the era. Pearsall’s persistence and work with the NFPA eventually led to the changing of building codes to incorporate the requirement of smoke detectors in all newly constructed buildings. In 1976, Pearsall was named the National Small Businessman of the Year by the Small Business Administration, and was presented the award by President Gerald Ford. Pearsall sold Statitrol to Emerson Electric Company in 1977.

The year 1980 was a big for Pearsall and Fire Protection. Pearsall was named the Fire Protection Man of the Year by the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, and was credited with saving more than 1,000 lives with the SmokeGard systems. Later that year, Pearsall became a charter member of Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Center for Fire Safety Studies, and began a donation matching program to help the Center grow and develop. Due to this funding commitment, the Center was able to sustain itself and grow into what is now known as the Fire Protection Engineering Program at WPI. In May 1996, Pearsall received an honorary doctorate degree from WPI, and in 2004, he was awarded the WPI Presidential Medal.

Life for Pearsall remained exciting after his resignation from Statitrol in 1977. He became a backbone for Small Business across the nation. He often spoke on behalf of Small Business, including multiple appearances as a witness in front of Congress. Pearsall additionally invested in the Rockies Venture Club, an early venture capital fund, in 1979. He then in 1983 became a founding general partner of the Columbine Venture Fund, which worked to help entrepreneurs obtain funding, a cause Pearsall felt strongly about.

Copyright statement: Use of the Duane D. Pearsall Papers Digital Collection is restricted under the "fair use" clause of the Copyright Law (Title 17, United States Code). The images and documents in this collection are available for the sole purpose of private study, research, and/or scholarship. Anyone wishing to use the images for commercial purposes, publication, or any purchase outside of "fair use" must obtain written permission from the WPI Archives & Special Collections.

The majority of the collection has been digitized and is being made available here in digital form. If you would like to view the physical items from the collection, please contact WPI's Archives & Special Collections at 508.831.6112 or email archives@wpi.edu.


Browse the MS055 Duane Pearsall Papers Collections:

MS055-01 Biographical materials

MS055-02 Statitrol Records

MS055.03 Small Business Records

MS055.04 Recognition, Awards, and Correspondence

MS055.05 Publications

MS055-06 Service in the Navy

MS055-07 Photographs and Scrapbooks

MS055-08 Smoke Detectors

MS055-09 Memorabilia