A Brief History of the Fire Engine

A Brief History of the Fire Engine

We’ve all seen at least one of those giant trucks at least once in our lives: barreling down towards the nearest fire, with loud sirens and even bolder colors. Fire engines have become one of the necessities of safe city living, and their presence has saved many lives and properties since their invention.

However, we really don’t know much about those essential machines, which is somewhat surprising, given that the history of fire engines has always been closely tied with city development and (in some cases) city disasters. Here’s a brief history on how they started from hand-carried sprayers to the roaring vehicles of today, which carry poly diesel fuel tanks.

How did people put out fires?

It’s not something that you tend to give much thought of until it’s pointed out to you, but it’s a little bit difficult to pinpoint when exactly did people start using fire engines. Three problems made this task difficult:

  • Transporting the water needed to suppress the fire
  • Delivering or dumping the water on the fire
  • The process that was used to do it

However, it doesn’t mean that we didn’t have a way to deal with fires before fire engines were invented. History tells us of devices called fire syringes that existed well before the first fire pump was invented around 2nd century B.C. But the widespread use of the fire pump didn’t come around until the 16th century.

There’s little doubt that the United States was the home of the first fire engine, though the majority of the important people and inventors involved were from Europe, where they had more experience in fighting fires in their urban centers. For example, a Londoner named Richard Newsham was the first to invent the actual fire engine in 1730, which was brought to New York a year later.

Fire engine development throughout the years

Fireman holding water hose

The earliest fire engines were cumbersome and often needed to be transported by hand. This would mean getting a group of men to carry the actual engine around or put it on a skid and drag it to the scene of the fire. Later on, horse-drawn fire engines became more popular but suffered problems due to the temperament of the horses, which often became unnerved at the sight and smell of a burning building.

It’s a bit strange as to how we haven’t really heard of steam-powered fire engines, given the impact the discovery of steam had, but there’s actually an interesting reason behind that. The first steam-powered fire engine was also built in New York around 1841 but was sabotaged by the local firefighters. The reasons behind this incident differ, depending on the account, but the effect was the same: steam-powered fire engines didn’t take off in urban centers, but still proved popular around the world.

Finally, the combination of gas or diesel engine trucks and fire engines took off around the beginning of the 20th century, as successful test cases have already been operating in England for a while. By 1905, the first modern fire engine was built and operated in the U.S. and has continued to be refined and worked on until today.

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