Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 55, Part I

By Holice and Debbie



Their Origin, Growth, and Development. -- Fire Apparatus in Use Before the Christian Era. -- The Force Pump. -- The Invention of Fire Engines. -- Application of the Air Chamber. -- Introduction of Leather Hose. -- Newsham's and Simpkin's Inventions. -- Ericsson's Portable Steam Engine, Etc, Etc.

The invention of the fire-engines is of great antiquity and involved somewhat obscurity. In chronicles relating to the destruction of cities by fire about the commencement of the Christian Era, and particularly concerning the burning of the town of Nicomedia in Bythania, the lack of machines or apparatus proper for extinguishing the flames was mentioned. The word sipho, used in said chronicles, being translated and so understood generally as mean fir engines. Hesychius and Isidorus, who lived in the beginning of the seventh century, prove that in the fourth century at least a fire engine, properly so-called, was understood under the term sipho. The question still remains at what time this apparatus for extinguishing fires was introduced at Rome. From the numerous ordinances for preventing accidents by fire, and in regard to extinguishing fire, which occur in the Roman laws, there is reason to conjecture that that capital was not unprovided with those useful implements and machines, of the want of which in a provincial town the historian Pliny complained. In the East engines were employed not only to extinguish but to produce fires. The Greek fire, invented by Callinicus, the architect of Heliopolis, a city afterward named Balbee, in the year 678, the use of which was continued in the East until 1291, and which was certainly liquid, was employed in many different ways; but chiefly onboard ship, being thrown from large fire engines on the ships of the enemy. Sometimes this fire was kindled in particular vessels, which might be called fire-ships, and which was introduced among a hostile fleet; sometimes it was put into jars and other vessels which were thrown at the enemy by means of projectile machines, and sometimes it was squirted by the soldiers from hand engines; or, as appears, blown through pipes. But the machines with which this fire was discharged from the fore-part of ships could not have been either hand engines or such blow pipes. They were constructed of copper and iron, and the extremity of them sometimes resembled the open jaws and mouth of a lion or other animal. They were painted, and even gilded, and it appears that they were capable of projecting the fire to a great distance. These machines by ancient writers were expressly called spouting-engines. John Cameniata, speaking of the siege of his native city, Thessalonica, which was taken by the Saracens in the year 904, says that the enemy threw fire into the wooden works of the besieged, which was blown into them by means of tubes and thrown from other vessels. That statement proves that the Greeks in the beginning of the tenth century were no longer the only people acquainted with the art of preparing that fire, the precursor of gunpowder. The emperor Leo (tenth century), in his treatise on the art of war, recommended such engines with a metal covering to be constructed in the fore-part of ships. There is no doubt the use of a force pump for extinguishing fires was long known before the invention of Greek fire. It is uncertain at what time the towns in Germany were first furnished with fire-engines. It is believed that they had regulations in regard to fire much earlier than engines, and the former are not older than the first half of the sixteenth century. The oldest respecting the city of Frankfort-on-the-Main is of the year 1460. The first general ordinance respecting fires in Saxony was issued by Duke George in 1521. The first for the city of Dresden, which extended also to the whole country, was dated 1529. At Augsburg an express regulation in regard to building was drawn up and made publicly known as early as 1447. In turning over old chronicles we find it remarked that great fires began to occur less frequently in the sixteenth century; and this was undoubtedly to be ascribed to the improved mode of building, the precautions enjoined to prevent fires and the introduction of apparatus for extinguishing them. Thus, in the year 1466, straw, thatch, and in 1474, the use of shingles were forbidden at Frankfort.

But by the invention of fire-engines everything in those respects became so much changed that a complete revision of the regulations in regard to the extinguishing of fires was rendered necessary, and therefore the first mention of town fire-engines is to be found in the new fire ordinances of the sixteenth and following century. In the building accounts of the city of Augsburg fire-engines are first mentioned in the year 1518. They are called in those accounts "instrument for fires," "water syringes," useful at fires--which would imply that the machine as than in its infancy. At that time they were made by a goldsmith at Friedberg, named Anthony Blatner, who the same year became a citizen of Augsburg. From the account given as to the construction of the wheels and levers, and the greatness of the expense, there is reason to conclude tht these were not small, simple, hand-engines, but large and complex machines.

In the year 1657 the well-known Jesuit father, Casper Schott, was struck with admiration on seeing at Nuremburg a fire -engine which had been made there by John Hautsch.. It stood on a sledge, ten feet long, and four feet broad. The water cistern was eight feet in length, four feet in height, and two in width. It was moved by twenty-eight men, and forced a stream of water an inch in diameter to the height of eighty feet. the machine as drawn by two horses. Hautsch refused to show the internal construction of it to Schott, who, however, readily conjectured it; and from what Schott has handed down it is easily perceived that the cylinder did not stand in the perpendicular direction, but lay horizontally in a box, so that the pistons moved horizontally and not vertically. Upright cylinders, therefore, belong to the more modern improvements. Schott added that it ws not a new invention, as there were such engines in other towns, but much smaller, in his native city. Schott was born in 1608 at Konigshofen, not far from Wurzburg.

The first regulations at Paris respecting fires, as far as is known, were made to restrain incendiaries, who in the fourteenth century, under the name of Boutefoux, occasioned great devastation not only in the capital but in the provinces. Tht city appears to have obtained fire-engines for the first time in the year 1699; at any rate, the kind at that period gave an exclusive right to Dumourier Deperrier to construct those machines called pompes portatives; and he was engaged at a certain salary to keep in repair seventeen of them purchased for Paris, and to procure and pay the necessary workmen. In the year 1722 the number of these engines was increased to thirty, which were distributed in different quarter of the city. the city, however, besides these thirty royal engines, had a great many others which belonged to the Hotel de Ville, and with which Duperrier had nothing to do.

In the middle of the seventeenth century fire-engines were very important. They had neither an air-chamber nor buckets, and required a great many men to work them. They consisted merely of a sucking-pump and forcing-pump united, which projected the water only in spurts and with continual interruption. Such machines on each movement of the lever experienced a stoppage, during which no water was thrown out; and because the pipe was fixed it could not convey water to remote places, though it might reach a fire at no great distance where there were convenient doors and windows to afford it a passage. At the same time the workmen were exposed to danger from the falling of the houses on fire. Hautsch adapted to his engine a flexible pipe which could be turned to any side; but certainly not an air-chamber, as Schott would have mentioned it. In the time of Belidor there were no other engines in France, and the same kind alone were used in England in 1760. At least that conclusion is induced by the account given by Ferguson, who called Newsham's engine, which threw the water out in a continual stream, a new invention. In Germany the oldest engine were of that kind who first conceived the idea of applying to the fire-engine an air chamber, in which the included air, by compressing her water, forces it out in a continue stream is not known..

According to a conjecture of Perrault, Vitruvius seems to speak of a similar construction. But the obscure passage in question might be explained in another way. There can be found no older fire-engine constructed with an air-chamber than that of Perrault has given a figure and description. He says it was kept in the king's library at Paris, and during fires could project water to a great height; that it had only one cylinder and yet threw out the water in one continued jet. He mentions neither its age nor the inventor; and it van only be added that Perrault's book was printed in 1684. The principle of this machine, however, seems to have been mentioned before by Mariotte, who on this account by some considered as the inventor.

It is certain that the air-chamber, at least in Germany, came into common use after it was applied by Leupold to fire-engines, a great number of which he manufactured and sold. He gave an account of it in a small work which was published in 1720; but at first he kept the construction a secret. The engine which he sold consisted of a strong cooper box closely shut and well soldered. They weighed no more than 16 pounds, occupied little room, had only one cylinder, and a man with one of them could force up the water without interruption to the height of from twenty to thirty feet. About 1725, Du Fay saw one of Leupold's engines at Strasburg, and discovered by conjecture the construction of it, which he made known in the Transactions of the Academy of Sciences at Paris for tht year. It is singular tht on this occasion Du Fay says nothing of Mariotte or of the engine in the king's library.

Another improvement, no less useful, is the leather hose added to the engine and to which the fire pipe is applied, so that the person who directs the jet of water can approach the fire with less danger. this invention belongs to two Dutchmen named Jan and Nicholas van der Heide, who were inspectors of the apparatus for extinguishing fires at Amsterdam. The first public experiment made with it took place in 1672, and were attended with so much success that a at fire next year the oil fir engines were used for the last time, and the new ones introduced in their stead. In 1677 the inventor obtained an exclusive privilege to make these engines during a period of twenty-five years. In 1682 engines on this construction were distributed in sufficient numbers throughout the whole city, and the old ones were entirely laid aside. In 1695 there were in Amsterdam sixty of these engines, the nearest six of which were to be employed at every fire. in the course of a few years they were common throughout all the towns in the Netherlands.

The employment of flexible hose strong enough to bear a good pressure of water had in no small degree increased the facility and effect with which fires can be controlled by means of water forced through it. The invention of the Van der Heides, after its introduction into Holland, became common in other parts of the continent, but it did not find its way into England until nearly a hundred years later. The great difficulty with the leather hose was to make it water tight. The seams were sewn like the leg of a boot, and the pressure caused them to open and leak badly, so that much of the water was lost where the hose carried too far. Notwithstanding this defect, leather was found to be the best material for the purpose on account of its strength and durability, substitutes, such as canvas and seamless woven hose, invariably giving way after short usage. Some sorts of hose were made of canvas covered with a cement or paint to make them water tight; another sort was the seamless hose woven in a tubular form by machines such as had been introduced at a very recent period as a new invention; but leather still continued to be used with such satisfactory results as to prove the truth of the old proverb, that "there is nothing like leather." Until the year 1808 the defective character of the hose seriously impaired its usefulness at fires. In that year Messrs. Sellers & Pennock, of Philadelphia, furnished a most valuable contribution to the means in use for extinguishing fire, by the invention of riveted hose. The substitution of cooper rivets for fastening seams removed the last obstacle to its employment, and lather hose has since played a conspicuous part among the instruments for extinguishing fires in America.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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