Sunday, April 06, 2008

Dousing the flames

To fight fires more effectively the Greek inventor Ctesibius, who lived in Alexandria in the 3rd century BC, devised a pump to replace buckets of water, This was bettered four centuries later by the inventor Hero whose hand powered pistons forced water through a pipe and a nozzle. Emperor Augustus created the world's first fire brigade in Rome in AD6, with 7000 vigiles.

Coordinated fire-fighting was rare in Roman and medieval Britain. But from the 13th century some towns required householders to own equipment - after 1574 the inhabitants of Winchester had to bring their buckets of water to quench fires. The Great Fire of London 1666, which left more than 100 000 homeless, showed the need for a more effective system.

The City of London council made provision for men to patrol the city looking for blazes, but did not see the need to organise fire-fighting. That was left to insurance companies, who established private fire brigades. The first, set up by the Phoenix Fire Office in 1684, was probably staffed by watermen.

A lever-operated pump mounted on a carriage was built in Germany in 1518, and by 1632 there was a fire engine in use in London. In 1712 John Grey and Nicholas Mandell patented a pump fitted with an air vessel, which produced a continuous jet. Long hoses, used from 1672 in Holland, were introduced into England in 1688.

John Braithwaite and John Ericsson increased the force of the jet with their 1829 steam fire engine. It was cumbersome and slow, and manual pumps continued to be used until motorised fire engines were invented in 1910.


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