Jennifer M. Pratt-Raymond
Capt. Vinny Calenda
The Evolution of the Fire Engine: From Steam Power to Automotive Technological Advances.
Imagine, pulling a hand pump or steam pump to a fire, miles away. Well that’s how it was done in the 1700’s. They had either a hand pumped or a steam powered tank of
water that they pulled by hand to the fires. The first self propelled engine
was born in the late 1800’s.
“Water pumps on wheels” is what the firemen called the hand pumps they pulled to the fires. They used these to aid the “bucket brigades”. The crew, if they weren’t
pulling them, had to run behind the trucks. Due to the “bucket brigades”, most
of the time, the fire was out before the crew even got there. Every house had a
bucket; everyone participated in the bucket brigades. When there was a fire the
first thing you grabbed was your bucket. After you grabbed your bucket everyone
formed a line from the source of water, usually a well or pond, to the fire. On
these wells was a hand pump with the same basic engineering technology created
by the Greek engineer Ctesibius of Alexandria. The hand pumps operated on the
principle of a siphon and could propel a jet of water towards the blazing fire.
Hand-operated pumps were placed on wagons making them more mobile. Some of these pumps, shooting up to 80 feet in the air, required up to 28 men to operate them. The first fire
hose was invented in 1672 by the Dutch inventor Jan van der Heiden. It was
constructed of flexible leather and coupled with brass fittings at 50 foot
intervals, the standard interval of today. In 1743 Thomas Lote of New York produced the
first American-built fire pump.
Constructed in London, 1829, by John Braithwaite, was a steam-powered fire pump capable of pumping
30-40 tons of water per hour. This phenomenon was brought to America.
Volunteers thought of it as a threat to their social organizations, the steam
engine would eliminate most of the need for the men.
The construction of a self-propelled steam engine was contracted by a group of New York insurance companies in 1841. Yet again, the firemen resisted its use, saying that their
jobs were at risk. Since most of the existing pump wagons required numbers of
men to push and pull them through the streets, self propelled engines would put
them out of work. However, in the early 19th century, though the steam powered
engines weren’t favored, the horse-drawn fire wagons were. A yellow fever
epidemic reduced the availability of manpower in New York, so volunteers at the New York
Mutual Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 voted in 1832 to purchase a horse to pull
The horse-drawn era was no doubt accelerated in the United States by “The Great Fire of Boston” in
1872. The fire began at a time when the horses used to pull the heavy steam
pumps were suffering from an epidemic of equine influenza. With out their
horses the fire men had to pull the engines, once again, through windy narrow
roads to this fire. “The Great Fire of Boston” burned for 20 hours, consuming
over 60 acres of downtown Boston.
Thirty people lost their lives and about $70 million of property was damaged or
lost. This accelerated the search for alternative ways to transport firemen and
Cincinnati, 1853, the first steam-powered engine comes into service. Designed by Cincinnati engineers Able Shank and Alexander Latter, it was affectionately named “Uncle
Joe Ross.” “Uncle Joe” was able to shoot water 225 feet and only required 3 men
to operate. By the end of the century the steam fire engines were found in
numerous fire stations. The last horse-drawn pump was retired in Chicago on February 6,
1923. On that same day Chicago became the first
completely motorized fire department in the United States.
Once the steam engine was popular, inventors and firemen started thinking of new ways to further ease the difficulty of their mission. The aerial ladder wagon
made its appearance in the fire service by 1870, followed by the hose elevator
Internal combustion fire engines that were built in the United States were first used in service in 1907. They were either used as pumping engines or tractors to pull
pieces of equipment. By 1910 both uses
were combined, causing only one gasoline-powered engine to propel the truck and
drive the pump.
Firefighting vehicles today have evolved highly from what they once were, and can do many more highly specialized functions than before. Modern engines allow
firefighters to respond quickly to a wide variety of emergencies. Usually the
diesel powered trucks include ladder trucks with aerial platform apparatus that
can access high buildings and sending steam applications to heights up to 130
feet. Some of the other trucks are; rescue trucks, brush trucks, mobile command
vehicles, smoke ejectors, high pressure spray trucks, and foam trucks. These
trucks allow us to put out numerous kinds of fires. For example the Federal Aviation Administration has special fire trucks made for airplane crashes. Refineries also
have their own special trucks that have different chemical applicators than the
usual fire truck.
The modern day diesel pump for a fire engine can deliver up to 2,000 gallons of water per minute through a light weight hose, made up of artificial fibers and measures
up to three inches in diameter. A fire boat, not limited to hydrant supply, can
easily deliver as much as 10,000 gallons per minute.
The aerial work platform, otherwise known as the “cherry picker”, is simply a bucket attached to a mechanically bending arm on the fire truck. This allows
the firemen to reach the corners of the fire that are otherwise unreachable.
The fire engine, as we know it today, was defined in the 1960’s. Along with
ladders, “cherry pickers”, and water pumps, fire trucks now have enclosed seats
for the crew. The men must be happy that they don’t have to run behind the
truck any more.
The “turntable ladder” is commonly known as the ladder truck or “sticks”. It enables the firemen enter and save the people on the higher levels of the
buildings. Also it enables them to have water at a higher point in order to
help put the fire out. Most “sticks” are also pumpers. The “sticks” with the
hydraulic arms are called “town ladders”. The hydraulic platform is a type of
“stick”, which allows for the men to move up and around some objects on the
Water tenders are basically tanks of water on wheels. They are more commonly found in rural areas where there aren’t many fire hydrants. This helps the firemen to be
able to have access to more water. Firemen usually use lakes or ponds to fill
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