Firefighting Equipment Before the 19th Century

Fighting a fire in New York City, 1869 illustration

Fire has always been an important part of life. It also is a destructive force that has to be battled and man has invented many ways to fight that force.

In early Rome, a properly equipped firefighting area would have a sledge hammer, two fire hooks, three leathern buckets, and a syringe, often called a hand squirt, mounted on a wall. The syringes were made of brass and held two to four quarts of water. The small ones were around two and one-half feet long, one and one-half inches across with a nozzle of one-half inch.

Three men were required to operate the syringe. One man on each side would place one hand close to the muzzle and one on the cylinder. The third man would operate the piston. They operated on the same principle as a modern syringe. The men would push the piston all the way into the cylinder, then place the nozzle in a bucket of water. The piston would then be withdrawn from the cylinder, filling it with water. The two men would aim the nozzle at the fire and the third would push the piston in, causing a stream of water to emit from the nozzle towards the fire. More men would be required to supply fresh buckets of water. These were in use in Rome as well as

England up to the early 1700s.

A 16th century engraving shows a very large syringe mounted on a carriage. These could hold a barrel or more of water. The piston was operated by a large screw mechanism. The cylinder was filled with water from a top opening, the opening was sealed and the operator would turn a large handle that would force the piston in. The size and length of the nozzle would determine the size and distance the water stream would go. Once the piston traveled all the way to the front of the cylinder, the operator would crank the piston back out and the cylinder filled again. The vertical position of the syringe was adjustable and the carriage had to be manually positioned laterally.

Hero was an Alexandrian mathematician of the 3rd century. He designed a firefighting engine known as the “Hero’s Fountain”. It had two pistons and cylinders with a series of valves and piping that enabled the pistons to work exactly like a modern engine. One piston would draw water into its cylinder while the other would push water out through piping to a nozzle. The pistons were connected with a bar that would push one while pulling the other, then vice-versa. The main problem was that a large vessel of water had to be available to submerge the engine in. Also flexible hoses were not known at the time and directing the “fountain” towards the fire was not easy.

Around the turn of the 18th century, Hero’s design was adapted into the first “fire engine”. A large wagon was constructed with a pump in a water tank. The engine was connected to a nozzle that could be directed by an operator. The engine was operated by a crank and screw mechanism that required several men to turn or a device similar to the teeter totter. Four men would stand on a platform, two on each side, grab a bar mounted in the middle and rock the platform back and forth which would operate the pistons below it. The water tank would have to be filled by men with buckets before operation and be constantly filled during operation. Hero’s design would eventually be improved by the Steam Pump Fire Engine.