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History of Firefighting Vehicles

Ctesibius of Alexandria is credited with inventing the first fire pump around the second century B.C. but the idea was lost, ironically, in the burning of Alexandria. The fire pump was reinvented in Europe during the 1500s, reportedly used in Augsburg in 1518 and Nuremberg in 1657. A book of 1655 inventions mentions a steam engine (called fire engine) pump used to "raise a column of water 12 m," but there was no mention of whether it was portable.

Colonial laws in America required each house to have a bucket of water on the front stoop (especially at night) in case of fire, for the initial "bucket brigade" that would throw the water at fires. Philadelphia obtained a hand-pumped fire engine in 1719, years after Boston's 1654 model appeared there, made by Joseph Jencks, but before New York's two engines arrived from London.

1725 - Newham
1725. Hand drawn 5th size manual fire engine. Used in England. Bedpost style pumper.
1740 - Newham
1740. Hand drawn 3rd size manual fire engine. Used in England.
1760 - Newham
1760. Hand drawn and carried manual fire engine. Used in England.

By 1730, Newham, in London, had made successful fire engines; the first used in New York City (in 1731) were of his make (six years before formation of the NYC volunteer fire department). The amount of manpower and skill necessary for firefighting prompted the institution of an organized fire company by Benjamin Franklin in 1737. Thomas Lote built the first fire engine made in America in 1743.

Steamfire Engine 1829

The first fire engine in which steam was used was that of John Braithwaite in 1829.

Ericsson made a similar one in New York in 1840. John Ericsson is credited with building the first American steam-powered fire engine.

John Ericsson
John Ericsson

1820 - Simpson
1820. Hand drawn manual fire engine. Built by Simpson of Pimlico, London. Used in England.
1850 - Shand Mason
1850. Hand drawn manual estate fire engine. Used in England.

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 engine was built in New York in 1841. It was the target of sabotage by firefighters and its use was discontinued, and motorized fire engines did not become commonplace until the early 20th Century.

1866 - Hunneman
1866. Hand drawn manual fire engine w/ jumper. Squirrel tail mounted suction hose.
1872 - Silsby
1872. Horse drawn chemical engine. Two 40 gallon tanks plus an 80 gallon reservoir and pump.

1878 - Silsby
1878. Horse drawn 2d size steam fire engine. Rotary engine and rotary pump.
1890 - Negaunee
1890. Horse drawn hose and ladder sled. Built on Studebaker wagon chassis.

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. While this arrangement enhanced response time, it proved to be both 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 seatings for their crews.

1913 - Merryweather
1913. Braidwood body style fire engine. Lima, Peru.
1918 - Mamaroneck
1918. Triple comb. Type 10 fire engine. Champion chemical tank.

Early pumpers

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, and today's valved hydrant systems are typically 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.

1920 - Kissell Ladder Wagon

1920 Kissell Ladder Wagon. The Kissell Motor Car Company of Hartford, Wisconsin, was famous for its sporty cars, especially the Gold Bug. Kissell also made trucks. They built this long base chassis for their home town in 1920. The Hartford FD then placed the body from a horse drawn Seagrave ladder wagon atop the chassis and voila! they had a city service ladder truck. They kept this truck in service until about 1965.

1935 - American La France Model 400

1935 American La France Model 400 fire engine from Norfolk, Nebraska. It has a 1,250 gpm rotary pump and the famous American La France V-12 engine.

1919 - Type 31-4 aerial
1919. Type 31-4 aerial truck.
1928 - Standard ladder truck
1928. Standard city service ladder truck.

1951 - Mack Model A fire engine
1951. Model A fire engine. 505 Thermodyne engine, 500 gpm Waterous single stage pump, 150 gallon tank.
1961 - TLF-8 fire engine
1961. TLF-8 fire engine w/ foam trailer. 500 lpm single stage pump, 500 liter tank. Germany.
1968 - Mack Model CF600 Engine
1968. Model CF600 Engine. 1,250 gpm single stage Waterous pump, 500 gallon tank.

Early aerials

As buildings grew in height since the late 19th Century, various means of reaching burning tall structures have been devised. At first, manually-extendable ladders were used; as these grew in length (and weight) these were put onto two large, old-fashioned wheels. When carried by fire engines these ladders had the wheels suspended behind the rear of the vehicle, making it a very distinctive sight which disappeared from some Commonwealth countries only in recent years.
Before long, the turntable ladder - which was even longer, mechanically-extendable, and installed directly onto a fire truck - made its appearance. Since the late 1930s, the longest turntable ladders have reached a height of 150 feet (45 metres), requiring the aforementioned "tiller trucks" to carry such ladders.
After the Second World War turntable ladders were supplemented by the aerial platform (or the "Cherry Picker") attached onto a mechanically-bending arm (or "snorkel") installed onto a fire truck; while these could not reach the height of the turntable ladder, these platforms could extend into previously unreachable "dead corners" of a burning building.

Dodge Argentina
Argentinian Dodge truck in El Chaltén.
Helsinki fire engine
A fire engine in Helsinki, Finland.
Mercedes fire truck
A Mercedes-Benz truck serving as Turntable ladder in Kronach/Germany.

FDNY Engine 6
FDNY Engine 6 in New York City.
Spanish Pegaso 7217 truck
Spanish Pegaso 7217 truck in Santiago de Compostela.
Polish Zuk van
Polish Zuk van serving as a fire engine.

 

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