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Early Steam Fire Engines

Did our last blog post about the restoration of our 1899 steam fire engine peak your curiosity about such infernal machines? Well, you are not alone. As we have been getting ready for the museum's annual Steam Show, I have done some research on early steam fire engines.

Arguably, steam power was used to pump water before it was used for transportation. In 1698, Thomas Savery invented a pump that used a vacuum created by steam pressure to draw water up a channel. Although intended to pump water out of mines, since it was an engine that used fire, it was referred to as a “fire engine.” Thomas Newcomen and James Watt were the eighteenth century inventors who really advanced steam power. Newcomen invented and Watt improved the use of steam to drive a piston capable of mechanical work.

To John Braithwaite goes the credit for the first steam engine intended for the purpose of putting out fires. Braithwaite, a London steam train pioneer, had built the "Novelty," the first locomotive to travel a mile in under a minute. In 1829 he constructed the first practical steam fire engine (pictured right), which moved less than a gallon of water per minute and took 20 minutes to get up steam. London’s fire brigades did not care for the new engine and it was eventually destroyed by an angry mob.

The first steam fire engine built in America (pictured left) was made by Paul Rapsey Hodge in New York City in 1841. Remarkably, it was self-propelled and harness steam both for moving water and moving itself. As in London, New York's firefighters were resistant to the new technology and abandoned use of Hodge’s engine after only a few months.