Have you ever stopped to wonder where fire alarm systems started, or how they started? If you have, nice! If not, well we’re here to walk you through the interesting history of fire alarms from way back when to the ones you know today.
With the creation of organized communities, precautionary solutions had to be created to protect those communities. Fire alarm systems, at their most basic level, were created along with civilization and the pursuit of staying safe, alive and well.
And the demand for fire alarm systems remains to be universally understood: providing people with a clear warning of fire will always be imperative to protecting the livelihood of both life and infrastructure around the world.
It was the Ancient Greeks and Romans who set the first fire alarm system standards: the simple method of applying water to fire, quickly, to extinguish it! Specifically, their creation was a fire-extinguisher and pump, a prototype to the fire alarms we think of today.
Okay, maybe not exactly what we think of today – it’d probably be safe to assume modern fire alarms are much more precise. Buckets were the equivalent to street-side fire hydrants – but hey – we must give credit where it’s due, right?
Obviously, technology has advanced greatly – but the premise and necessity remain the same: a system had to be created to specifically warn others of a fire and call to action those who could put it out. With this, more and more measures were put into place with the implementation of specific fire-fighting tools: the fire-fighters, fire “trucks”, fire equipment and fire stations.
By the 16th century, it was quickly understood within most civilizations a water supply must be kept close by, quickly accessible in case of a fire. Eventually, larger communities and cities needed better ways warn others from further distances. Here’s where bell towers came into play as the first fire alarm system.
Traditionally, bell towers were meant as a public service, to track time. Bells were also rung for Church, and town gatherings, but the difference was in the way they sounded the bells. You could say fire began to have a certain ring to it.
It was in America, in 1828, that the Pennsylvania State House rebuilt their Independence Hall a new steeple, hung a new bell, and employed an official fire watchman. A man named Franklin Peale came up with specific bell-ringing signals: ringing the bell at certain intervals alerted folks of the general location where the fire was, and men would quickly head in that direction, water in tow.
This was quickly adopted in other big cities, too. Bell codes worked, to a degree, but the unpredictability of fire itself called for higher, more precise ways of locating and distinguishing fires before they reached a detrimental level of destruction. The fire alarm system has come a long way since the bell tower.
America in the mid-17th century was an exciting era of life-changing (and saving) inventions. Following Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph in 1837, and its commercial usage starting in 1844, it was scholar of electromagnetism, Mr. William F. Channing, of Boston, MA, who invented the first official fire alarm system.
Channing, and his assistant Mr. Moses Farmer, both believed that the use of telegraphy and electromagnetism could be used for different types of communication and location – specifically for emergency situations. The end goal was to create a quick, reliable fire alarm that could be used to alert firefighters the near-exact location of a fire as it started.
Originally, the fire alarm system was a bit confusing. It was a large, hefty contraption with several wires and levers, containing a telegraphic key with a metal handle. In 1852, when a fire was detected, someone would crank the handle, relaying the fire box alarm number to the nearest fire station location. Doing this also sounded the literal alarm, which would ring at the location and at the nearest fire station.
Often, however, if the crank was turned too quickly, the telegraph signal couldn’t be sent out. The relationship between the electric current that would pulse out this fire alarm signal and the release of the bell-clappers (the alarm itself) was very touchy and had to be done precisely. As one may assume, in a state of emergency, your average Joe may be a little scared and not necessarily aware that he should make sure to crank the handle correctly.
For a busy city, this invention was a monumental moment toward the improvement of local and city-wide safety procedures, and it was quickly patented. After refining their product, patent for Channing and Farmer’s “Electromagnetic Fire Alarm Telegraph” was issued on May 19th, 1857.
In March of 1855, Channing set out his proposal describing the victories and merits of his invention at the Smithsonian Institution lecture in Boston, Massachusetts. He described his invention as “a higher system of municipal organization than any which has heretofore been proposed or adopted.” However efficient, his product just wasn’t catching on, and he was going into debt.
John Nelson Gamewell, a postmaster and telegraph operator from Camden, South Carolina, attended the same lecture Channing did, and recognized the potential of the invention. He bought the rights to the fire alarm box Channing and Farmer created. Gamewell adapted the fire box to become more easily handled, and it sold to over 500 cities. Instead of all the intricate levers and pulleys arranged on Channing’s product, the now universally-recognized “pull-down lever” was adapted.
Think of the fire alarms we have today – the small red box containing a handle beneath the glass that is to be pulled in case of a fire, often setting off sprinklers and sending out a signal to the fire station(s) close by to come and put out the fire. The original design wasn’t all that different, but there were too many things that could go wrong. Gamewell’s adaptations made all the difference and gave way to the fire alarm systems we have today.
So there you have it – the fire alarm system from ancient times through modern day. It’s quite interesting to see how powerful innovations that will benefit people the world round have evolved throughout history. Will there be additional fire alarm innovations beyond what we have in this modern age? As technology and the Internet of Things continue to race on, we would set a friendly wager on changes down the line. I mean, we have moved from paper fire inspections to awesome fire inspection apps!