Have you ever wondered how people got word to the Fire Department if their home was ablaze in the days before telephones? In colonial America it was not much more than ringing bells, sounding rattles, and screaming “Fire!” as loud as your voice would allow. By the time volunteer firefighters were able to pull a two-ton hand-drawn fire engine several blocks over cobblestones, dirt, and mud, your house was a lost cause. Saving the neighbor’s house was a more efficient use of their remaining energies. Then, in 1859, Baltimore took a giant leap forward with the installation of its first Fire Alarm Telegraph Boxes.
Last year the Fire Museum’s new and improved Fire Alarm Office opened to depict the evolution of 150 years of fire alarm telegraph technology. But how does it all work? The fire alarm telegraph boxes operate on a closed circuit that is interrupted when a box is pulled. This activates a pattern of bells and lights in the central Fire Alarm Office that correspond with the particular box. From there a signal is sent to all firehouses, and the engine or truck companies assigned to that box are on the way. In all, the process took about two to three minutes before fire fighters were in route.
This was quite an improvement over ringing bells and shouting, and came at a time when the Baltimore Fire Department was making several modernizations. Steam power was adapted to power fire engines that could propel water farther than older hand powered ones. Horses were used to pull the new, and now heavier, steam powered fire engines to emergencies more quickly. Fulltime professional firefighters were hired to replace volunteers who might be scattered at the time of a fire. Horses, steam power, and men worked together to respond to an alarm sounded by the city’s brand new Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph system.
The new Electricity Lab is an education program that teaches children about the science of electricity and circuits. In this program students will come to understand how electricity passes through a closed circuit by making a simple circuit of their own. Their circuits will include a telegraph key that will sound a buzzer when pressed. These can be used to practice the codes used by the Baltimore Fire Department or annoy parents!
Finally, we are very excited to announce that reservations are currently being taken from school groups for this program. Additionally, the Fire Museum of Maryland will be hosting the Electricity Lab as part of the Inaugural Maryland STEM Festival! This will take place on Saturday, November 14, 2015 from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm. During this time, discounted admission to the museum will allow you to participate in the Electricity Lab at no additional cost. If you are interested, please join us!