n early device used to squirt water onto a fire was known as a squirt or fire syringe. Hand squirts and hand pumps are noted before Ctesibius of Alexandria invented the first fire pump around the 2nd century B.C., and an example of a force-pump possibly used for a fire-engine is mentioned by Heron of Alexandria.
In 1650, Hans Hautsch built a fire engine with a compressed air vessel. On each side 14 men worked a piston rod back and forth in a horizontal direction. The air vessel, a type of pressure tank, issued an even stream despite the backward motion of the piston. This was made possible by a rotating pipe mounted on the hose which allowed the jet to reach heights up to 20 m (65.6 ft). Caspar Schott observed Hautsch’s fire engine in 1655 and wrote an account of it in his Magia Universalis.
Colonial laws in America required each house to have a bucket of water on the front stoop in preparation for fires at night. These buckets were intended for use by the initial bucket brigade that would supply the water at fires. Philadelphia obtained a hand-pumped fire engine in 1719, years after Boston‘s 1654 model appeared there, made by Joseph Jenckes Sr., but before New York’s two engines arrived from London.
By 1730, Richard Newsham, in London, had made successful fire engines. He also invented those first used in New York City in 1731 where the amount of manpower and skill necessary for firefighting prompted Benjamin Franklin to found an organized fire company in 1737. Thomas Lote built the first fire engine made in America in 1743. These earliest engines are called hand tubs because they are manually (hand) powered and the water was supplied by a bucket brigade dumping it into a tub (cistern) where the pump had a permanent intake pipe.
An important advancement around 1822 was the invention of an engine which could draft water from a water source. This rendered the bucket brigade obsolete. In 1822, a Philadelphia-based manufacturing company called Sellers and Pennock made a model called “The Hydraulion”. It is said to be the first suction engine. Some models had the hard, suction hose fixed to the intake and curled up over the apparatus known as a squirrel tail engine.
The earliest engines were small and were either carried by four men, or mounted on skids and dragged to a fire. As the engines grew larger they became horse-drawn and later self-propelled by steam engines.
Until the mid-19th century, most fire engines were maneuvered by men, but the introduction of horse-drawn fire engines considerably improved the response time to incidents. The first self-propelled steam pumper fire engine was built in New York in 1841. Unfortunately for the manufacturers, some firefighters sabotaged the device and its use of the first engine was discontinued. However, the need and the utility of power equipment ensured the success of the steam pumper well into the twentieth century. Many cities and towns around the world bought the steam fire engines.
Motorised fire engines date back to January 1897, when the Prefect of Police in Paris applied for funds to purchase “a machine worked by petroleum for the traction of a fire-engine, ladders, and so forth and for the conveyance of the necessary staff of pompiers”. With great prescience the report states “If the experiment prove successful, as is anticipated, horses will eventually be entirely replaced by automobiles”. This was, indeed, the case and motorised fire engines became commonplace by the early 20th century. By 1905, the idea of combining gas engine motor trucks into fire engines was attracting great attention; according to a Popular Mechanics article in that year, such trucks were rapidly gaining popularity in England. That same year, the Knox Automobile Company of Springfield, Massachusetts, began selling what some have described as the world’s first modern fire engine. A year later, the city of Springfield, Illinois, had filled their fire department with Knox engines. Another early motorized fire engine was developed by Peter Pirsch and Sons of Kenosha, Wisconsin.
For many years firefighters sat on the sides of the fire engines, or even stood on the rear of the vehicles, exposed to the elements. This arrangement was uncomfortable and dangerous (some firefighters were thrown to their deaths when their fire engines made sharp turns on the road), and today nearly all fire engines have fully enclosed seating areas for their crews.
Early pumpers used cisterns as a source of water. Water was later put into wooden pipes under the streets and a “fire plug” was pulled out of the top of the pipe when a suction hose was to be inserted. Later systems incorporated pressurized fire hydrants, where the pressure was increased when a fire alarm was sounded. This was found to be harmful to the system and unreliable. Today’s valved hydrant systems are kept under pressure at all times, although additional pressure may be added when needed. Pressurized hydrants eliminate much of the work in obtaining water for pumping through the engine and into the attack hoses. Many rural fire engines still rely upon cisterns or other sources for drafting water into the pumps. Steam pumper came in to use in the 1850s.
In the late 19th century, means of reaching tall structures were devised. At first, manually extendable ladders were used; as these grew in length (and weight), they were put onto two large wheels. When carried by fire engines these wheeled escape ladders had the wheels suspended behind the rear of the vehicle, making them a distinctive sight. Before long, turntable ladders—which were even longer, mechanically extendable, and installed directly onto fire trucks—made their appearances.
After the Second World War turntable ladders were supplemented by the aerial work platform (sometimes called “cherry picker”), a platform or bucket attached onto a mechanically bending arm (or “snorkel”) installed onto a fire truck. While these could not reach the height of similar turntable ladders, the platforms could extend into previously unreachable “dead corners” of a burning building.