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

historic fire engine

The iconic red fire engine that you often see roaring down the city streets has undergone a great deal of change throughout history.  In early civilizations, the emergence of permanent houses and the use of fire to heat, cook, and light these houses brought about the risk of house fires.  Naturally, people sought a means to extinguish the blazes to protect their families, resulting in hundreds of years of new apparatus designs, innovations and able-bodied men and women to operate them.  Here is a brief history of fire engines; how we went from the bucket brigade to the sophisticated selection of apparatus we have today.

Early 1700’s: First Patented Fire Engine Designs

Early prototypes of the fire engine were designed in England to essentially to do one thing, move water from one place to another.  Once the firefighters arrived on scene they would dutifully discharge their tanks with the aid of early pumps to generate the pressure needed to reach above ground infrastructure. In 1721, Richard Newsham, an English inventor who recognized an opportunity, filed 2 patents seeking the sole authority to manufacture an improved version of the fire apparatus.  His patent would allow him to control the market of fire engines during the mid-1700’s in England.

Newsham’s apparatus design consisted of a wooden chassis that was constructed with a long and narrow frame that could easily maneuver under a Standard English doorway.  Auxiliary devices used to pump and propel water on 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.  The patented design was different than previous engine models in that it would pump water in a continuous stream whereas other engines were only capable of pumping water in spurts.  Newsham touted that his engines were rated at a pumping capacity of 100 US gallons a minute and said to hold pressure so great that it was powerful enough break windows of high rise dwellings.

1800-1900s: 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 change impact fire equipment and apparatus manufacturing in a big way.  The trend started with the introduction of the horse drawn steam pumper.  The early steam fire engines were used from approximately 1840 to 1920 to pump water onto large urban fires that were breaking out due to population density and poor burning practices.  The steam pumper allowed for quick transfer of water but was still hindered by the use of horses for conveyance. The demand for more water to fight bigger blazes increased the weight of the fire engine and in turn rendered the horse as an ineffective propelling device for the engines.  Additionally the upkeep of barracks to board horses was becoming a nuisance.  For example, at the height of steam engine utilization, the San Francisco Fire Department was said to have over 450 horses in their department.

According to a Popular Mechanics article in 1905, the transition from steam to a gasoline powered fire apparatus was well underway.  The development of the internal-combustion engine around the early 20th century sparked the change to convert the horse drawn steam powered apparatus into a self-  propelled motorized version. 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.  It soon became apparent that the advantages to using motorized vehicles vs. horse drawn in the areas of durability and cost were too numerous to halt transformation.  By 1925, the steam pumper had been completely replaced by motorized pumpers. The adaptation of the efficient operation of pumps located on the apparatus was a little slower.  Difficulties that developed in adapting geared rotary gasoline engines to pumps made it necessary for the first 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 finally by centrifugal pumps which are used today by most modern pumpers.

Mid to Late 1900s: Development of the Ladder Truck

As populations began to move from rural areas to the cities that contained more opportunities for work, the buildings housing these populations began to grow taller.  Firefighters and the engines they manned had to devise a way to thwart this threat. Daniel D. Hayes, a native New York City firefighter, saw the necessity of getting crewmembers to the towering buildings that were under threat.  Hayes developed a mounted extension ladder to the top of a ladder truck equipped with a spring-assist mechanism raised the ladder into its elevated position.  This aerial ladder invention by Hayes revolutionized the use of ladders at fires. The Hayes ladder was used to allow firefighters to quickly roll up to the scene of the fire, raise the mounted ladder to the windows of burning buildings, and to extinguish the fire and rescue victims. The Hayes ladder would soon become an important piece of fire apparatus across the nation in major cities like New York City and San Francisco.  These ladders would remain in service until the early 1950’s.

modern fire engine

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 upfitted with sirens, lights and communications equipment such as two-way radios and mobile computers. With all of it’s first aid and emergency equipment, fire engines are commonly used for purposes other than fire fighting, 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 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 that have happened in fire fighting over the last few hundred years, it’s difficult to predict what the future holds for fire engines. One thing that is certain, however, is that the fire engine will continue to be an integral tool in firefighting efforts, and will only save countless more lives in years to come.



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