The History of Fire Engines: From Primitive Pumps to Advanced Technology

The iconic red fire engine that you often see has changed throughout history.  In early civilizations, the need for fire to heat, cook, and light homes increased the risk of house fires. So naturally, people sought a means to extinguish the blaze, resulting in hundreds of years of new apparatus designs, and innovations.  

Early 1700’s: First Patented Fire Engine Designs

Historic fire engine Early prototypes of the fire engine were designed in England to move water from one place to another.  Once the need for firefighters became apparent, they would discharge the tanks with pumps to generate the pressure needed to reach the blazing infrastructure. In 1721, Richard Newsham, an English inventor, recognized an opportunity. Newsham filed 2 patents that would allow him to create and control the market of fire engines during the mid-1700s in England. Newsham’s apparatus design consisted of a wooden chassis constructed with a long and narrow frame that could easily be maneuvered. Newsham’s engine encompassed a large lever that required the efforts of two men.  The two firefighters would then begin pumping by standing with one foot on each side of the pump, throwing their weight upon each treadle alternately.  While the crew members were pumping, a leather hose was attached to the top of the apparatus that another set of firefighters directed the jet of water at the fire. 

1800-the 1900s: Development of Mobile Fire Engines – Horse Drawn to Combustion Engine Powered Apparatus

vintage fire truck As America moved into the industrial age, larger cities, such as Boston, New York, Baltimore, and San Francisco, saw technological changes that impacted the way apparatus were being manufactured.   The trend started with the introduction of the horse-drawn steam pumper.  The early steam fire engines were used from approximately 1840 to 1920, allowing for quick transfer of water but were still hindered by a horse’s capibilities. The demand for more water to fight bigger fires increased the weight of the fire engine and, in turn, rendered the horse ineffective for bigger engines.  By 1913, companies such as the Ahrens-Fox Manufacturing Company from Cincinnati and the Knox Automobile Company of Springfield, Massachusetts, were leading the conversion from steam to gas-powered. However, it soon became apparent that the advantages of using motorized vehicles vs. horse-drawn in durability and cost were too numerous to halt transformation.   By 1925, the steam pumper had been completely replaced by motorized pumpers. Difficulties developed in adapting geared rotary gasoline engines to pumps, which then made it necessary for gasoline-powered fire engines to be outfitted with two motors; one to drive the pump and the other to propel the vehicle.  However, these pumps were gradually replaced by rotary pumps and centrifugal pumps, which are used today by most modern pumpers.

The mid to late 1900s: Development of the Ladder Truck

The move from rural to urban increased the need for more efficient apparatus. Daniel D. Hayes, a native New York City firefighter, saw the necessity of getting firefighters to the towering buildings under threat.  Hayes developed a mounted extension ladder to the top of a ladder truck equipped with a spring-assist mechanism that raised the ladder into its elevated position. The Hayes ladder was used to allow firefighters to quickly roll up to the fire scene, raise the mounted ladder to the windows of burning buildings, and extinguish the fire and rescue victims.  These ladders would remain in service until the early 1950s.

modern BME pumper fire engine
BME Pumper

Apparatus Construction and Operation Today

Modern fire engines are packed with fire and rescue equipment, including hoses, ladders, self-contained breathing apparatus, ventilating equipment, first aid kits, and hydraulic rescue tools. They are also fitted with sirens, lights, and communications equipment such as two-way radios and mobile computers. With all of its first aid and emergency equipment, fire engines are commonly used for purposes more than firefighting, such as emergency response. Today, there are different apparatus types for various uses, including wildland fire apparatus for navigating rough wildland terrain and water tenders for transporting a large amount of water to the scene of a fire. As technological innovations are made each year, fire engines become more advanced. Today, new additions such as wireless communications and wifi hotspots are increasing in demand. With the major changes in fire fighting over the last few hundred years, it’s difficult to predict what the future holds for fire engines. However, one certain thing is that the fire engine will continue to be an integral tool in firefighting efforts.

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