Fire is a fickle friend. She has the ability to provide warmth and survival but also destruction. Throughout history, fire has ravaged buildings and towns without warning but thanks to advancements in technology, fire detection has seen vast improvements over the last 150 years. Prior to the mid 19th century, fires were only detectable once they had grown large enough to be seen by the watchman on duty. Cities came up with a variety of ways to alert the public of a fire. Watchmen would use wooden rattles or shout through the streets. Philadelphia pioneered certain codes produced with bell towers. Different bell patterns would tell the public where the fire was in relation to the steeple. Though as populations increased, it became clear that a new system was in order.
The Fire Alarm Telegraph
In 1852, William Channing and Moses Farmer designed the Fire Alarm Telegraph. With this system, the telegraph boxes would be placed around a city and connected by wires. When someone noticed a fire, they would use a manual crank or pull hook inside the box. The crank would sound an alarm and send electric pulses to notify the central station of which box was used. The station would then notify the fire department. With help from John Gamewell and John Kennard, the Fire Alarm Telegraph System became highly popular over the next century. In fact some large cities such as New York and Boston still have active boxes today in case of emergency.
However, despite the success of the system, improvements could still be made in the field of fire detection. These systems still relied on a person to notice the fire and while this allowed fire departments to get there quicker than the days of the watchmen, response time still left something to be desired. In 1890 Francis Upton developed the first electric fire alarm. His system included a thermostat that would detect heat and activate a local alarm. Though his system wasn’t very popular, it was the birth of automatic fire detection and led the way for countless other technological advancements that paved the way for modern systems.
Fire Alarm Systems are an integral part of fire protection in both homes and businesses. Today, the only thing occupants need to think about in the event of a fire is following their predetermined exit route, fire alarm systems will let others in the building know. Increasing advancements in detection and communication ensure that the field is always improving.
National Museum of American History