History of the Telegraph Fire Alarm Boxes

To look at the history of the telegraph fire alarm, one must go way back to the 1700's.  Back then any organized fire department used church bells to alert the firefighters of a fire.  However, there were times when the church bells would not ring.  There is a story that the city of New Orleans, Louisiana lost 900 buildings in 1788 because the priests would not allow church bells to sound on Good Friday.  Since the church bells didn't ring, no organized firefighting was done until it was too late.  Aside from Church bells, there were bells at government buildings that would sound,.  The most famous bell to alert firefighters was the Liberty Bell.  Yes, the same Liberty Bell in Philadelphia was used to notify firefighters, before it rang out for freedom. 

Other means to notify firefighters  of a fire ranged from shooting guns, to using moose horns, to hitting old railroad locomotive tires with a hammer.  Some towns had night watchmen that would patrol the streets.  Upon discovering a fire, they would shake a wooden rattle.  Evidently, it was loud enough to wake people up.  Upon hearing the rattle, the homeowners would throw their leather buckets outside for volunteers to pick up and start a bucket brigade.

Some larger cities had watch towers.  Watchmen would look around a city from up high in a tower.  Each tower had  a number assigned to it, a flag and a lantern.  When a watchman would see smoke or fire, he would sound his number and position his flag (if daytime) or lantern (t nighttime) to the direction of the fire.  Other watchmen would hear his bell sounding and then ring his bell, repeating the tower number and also positioning his lantern to the direction of the fire.   In some cities, the lanterns could be different colors, representing different directions.  Soon, the bell towers were tied in together via telegraph lines.

Now, many historians credit Charles Robinson of New York for using the telegraph to transmit fire alarms to the bell towers.  However, it was William Ellery Channing, a physician from Massachusetts, who is credited with the design and perfection of the first telegraph fire alarm box system.  Although he was a physician, his interest was aimed more at electricity and magnetism.  He envisioned a system of fire boxes and overhead telegraph lines leading to the police and a central fire alarm office.  So much so that he attempted to convince the City of Boston to consider a system such as this.  The city turned down his idea. 

Channing partnered up with Moses G. Farmer who was considered by many to be an expert electrical mechanic.  But what really interested Channing was Moses' bell striking device.  In 1848, the City of Boston decided to investigate the potential of this new fire alarm system.    The City council later voted for funds to construct two of the bell striking machines that would strike the bells from distant points.   One was installed in City Hall.  The other in New York City.   When the operator in New York open and closed the circuit, the bell in Boston's City Hall rang.   Three years later in 1851, the city of Boston appropriated $10,000 for the construction of Channing & Farmer's fire alarm system.  On April 28, 1852, the first telegraph fire alarm system was placed in service.   The very first call form this system was On April 29, 1852, at 20:25 hours, when a fire was located inside a barber shop.  Mr. JH Goodale ran to the box at a church where District 1 Station 7 was located.  He turned the box lever faster than what the system could register.  He did not hear the alarm bells, so he went to the fire alarm office to report the fire.  Now, this new system did have its glitches which needed to be worked out.  And it was.

In March 1855, Channing gave a lecture at the Smithsonian Institute on The American Fire Alarm Telegraph.  In the audience was John Nelson Gamewell.  Gamewell was a bit of a telegraph buff and was quite interested in Channing's speech.  Gamewell returned home to South Carolina and sought out his friend James Dunlap, who financed Gamewell's enthusiasm for the purchasing rights for installation of systems in the Southern U.S.  A few years later, Gamewell bought all the rights for about $30,000.

Gamewell did not fair very well.  He only sold a few systems and with the start of the Civil War, the focus shifted.  In addition, Dunlap refused to put another cent into Gamewell's fire box system.  During the Civil War, the government confiscated all of the patents for the fire alarm box system.  Penniless, Gamewell moved his family to Hackensack, NJ in 1866.  Mr. John Kennard purchased the patents and sold them back to Gamewell. Thus, Gamewell, Kennard &Company was formed.  Meanwhile, other fire alarm companies were forming.  But it was Gamewell's company that ended up cornering the market as he captured about 95% of the total market.

In today's world, the only company still manufacturing telegraph fire alarm boxes is the Gamewell Company, owned by Honeywell, Inc.  While no one is purchasing new complete telegraph fire alarm systems, there are some towns that still add to their existing systems.  Thus, there is still a need for Gamewell to produce these boxes.

 

For a complete history, see "Fire Alarm!" by Paul Ditzel and "History of the Fire Alarm and Police Telegraph" by Paul Roncallo.  Information on the History of the Telegraph fire alarm boxes was derived from "Fire Alarm!" by Paul Ditzel