The Steam-Powered Fire Engine: Cincinnati’s Noble Contribution to Fire-Fighting History


Some people are by nature very resistant to change. Sooner or later, most people eventually begin to come around to realize that such change is more often than not for the better – the world moves forward, progress ensues, and humans must either move with it or learn to get out of the way. Sometimes, however, it takes time, and the turnover is not always as pleasant as one might like.

In some instances, one would think that the positive side of change would be obvious. Who, after all, could possibly see the downside to the invention of such important things as efficient tools for fighting deadly fires?

Apparently, about 250 people in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Ancient Fire Fighting

Now, water pumps used for spraying water in order to fighting fires were not exactly a new thing. In fact, the invention of the first “hand-cranked” pump dates as far back as the city of Alexandria in the second century B.C. and several times throughout the history of the Roman Empire. What had not been invented prior to this point was an automated system that would require less man-power to run.

It was in 1852 when the city council of Cincinnati ordered the first practical steam engine to be built and used in fighting the city’s fires. In addition, the city would hire some of the very first paid firefighters to man it. Three clever citizens of the city, Abel Shawk, Alexander Latta, and Miles Greenwood set about to design and construct this marvelous machine, which would pump water far faster than could ever be done by hand, though it was still pulled down the streets by horses – full automation was not yet available. Clearly, there should have been very little not to like about this plan.

The fire engine was completed on January 1st, 1853, and named “Uncle Joe Ross,” after one of the members of the city council (one would assume he was one of the members who was instrumental in getting this legislation passed).

Opposition to the Fire Engine

What could possibly be the downside to this, one might ask. Through a technological breakthrough, fires would be put to rest far more quickly, saving time, money, and lives in the process. It would seem to any clear-thinking individual that only good could possibly come from such an innovation.

However, two hundred fifty suddenly outdated members volunteer fire department in Cincinnati were apparently quite irate at the idea of being usurped by a machine and men who were paid to operate it.

When “Old Joe Ross” went to fight its very first fire, these angry volunteers showed up as well, only not to fight the fire. They decided instead that they wanted to fight the firemen – to give them a quick beating in hopes of persuading them to let the volunteers handle the fires.

The riotous volunteers did not get their way that day – the steam engine was quite successful, firing four simultaneous jets of water with as much volume as several hundred volunteers. Soon, Cincinnati adopted another, and other cities followed suit, and apart from this first squabble, there were no more riots over the introduction of better means of fighting fires. Human reasoning won out in the end, with people realizing that even if the volunteers might have felt somewhat rejected and unneeded, such was only minor compared to the immeasurable benefit of saving people and buildings from burning.

Could it Happen Again?

Perhaps today similar issues might arise if someone invented a robot who could fight fires perfectly on its own, thereby putting firefighters in general out of a job. Perhaps they wouldn’t be happy, but isn’t this a small price to pay to save lives? Compassionate Logic would say, yes. Absolutely.

After all, the steam fire engine turned out to be one of the biggest breakthroughs in firefighting in almost two thousand years. Surely if they had realized this, the volunteers might not have been so angry.


  1. Cincinnati Fire Museum
  2. “The Steam Fire Engine.” New York Times, July 20, 1854
  3. “Escape: Because Accidents Happen: Fire.” PBS, Nova.
  4. “History of the American Steam Fire.”