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The History of Fire Apparatus
Updated On: Jan 19, 2007

In the centuries gone by fire has been looked upon by some peoples as a god, to be worshipped. Destructive conflagrations have been accepted as the angry expression of a deity. But with the progress of civilization the attitude toward fire has developed the philosophy that it is a splendid servant but a dangerous master.
The history of portable fire fighting apparatus is an interesting panorama of mechanical progress. It has been a long step mechanically, as well as in terms of years, from the earthen buckets to the modern pumping engine.

Ancient efforts at fire extinction were confined to the use of earthen, metal or leather buckets for carrying water and throwing it on the fire. The first mechanical device for fire extinction was a syringe. In England in the sixteenth century it was known as a "hand squirt." These "squirts" were of very limited effectiveness for their capacity was only about two to four quarts of water, and usually three men were required to operate them -- two to hold the cylinder and one to work the plunger. Other people were of course needed to carry the water.

Sometime about the middle of the sixteenth century a "fire engine" was built, consisting of a giant syringe having a capacity of perhaps a barrel of water, mounted on a two-wheeled carriage. The plunger, or piston, was controlled by turning a crank attached to a threaded plunger-rod. Water was poured from buckets into the syringe through a funnel near its mouth.

Then came the "pump engine" - a plunger pump set in a large tub of water. Two men operated the pump handle and another directed the jet of water. In order to transport this "engine" it was mounted on a sled and dragged by ropes to the fire.

This machine was more effective than the "hand squirts" because of its greater capacity, but its effectiveness was impaired because of the interrupted action of the jet. Water was projected in spurts, ceasing with the completion of the piston stoke. As a consequence, considerable water was wasted in falling between the engine and the fire. That disadvantage was greatly overcome later by connecting two such pumps to one discharge pipe, and operating the pumps alternately. But even this machine had its limitation, and much reliance was still placed on buckets and "hand squirts.

In the course of time there was developed the "man-power" pumping engine with the rocking handle operated by two or more men, and mounted on a four-wheeled carriage drawn by men. This type of engine, which was improved upon from time to time, was used a great many years. A few pieces of this type are still in existence.

The next mechanical device of importance for use in fire extinction was the steam pumping engine, drawn by horses. Its advent marked considerable progress in fire fighting equipment and though the first of such engines was crude, yet the idea was developed to a point where the "steamer" possessed a high degree of efficiency. For years it served very capably in fire extinction.

The idea of using the gasoline engine to both transport fire apparatus and to furnish power for the pump was approached from two directions; one, from the use of the gasoline engine as a transporting power only and the other from its being used only to drive the pump.

About 1908 a pumping engine consisting of a piston pump driven by a four-cylinder gasoline engine was built. This was mounted on a vehicle drawn by horses. This "pioneer" apparatus proved the practicability of using the gasoline engine for furnishing power for a fire department pump.

To adapt the gasoline engine to performing the double duty of transporting the apparatus and of driving the pump was soon accomplished. From that time, eventual motorization of fire departments was a certainty. It was then a matter of improving upon the principle whose inherent practicability had been demonstrated. Efforts at increasing the efficiency of the early motorized pumping engines included a study of the various types of pumps in order to ascertain which one of the three types could best be adapted to use with the gasoline engine. The three types were: the piston pump, the rotary gear pump, and the centrifugal pump. The factors entering into the suitability of these types of pumps for gasoline engine drive are discussed elsewhere in this book.

It has been a long step mechanically, as well as in terms of years, from the ancient bucket to the modern pumping engine. Who can say but that this transition is an accurate indication of the increased intelligence of the human family?

Reprinted From Seagrave Catalogue No. 5, ca. 1926

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