The Fire Alarm Telegraph System


The first Fire Alarm Telegraph System installed in this country was in Boston in 1852.  It was the brainchild of a man who held a medical degree, Dr. William F. Channing, who, ironically it is said, never practiced medicine.  He coupled his knowledge of the workings of the human brain and nervous system with Samuel F.B. Morse’s “Telegraph”, developed in 1842, and came up with the idea of a means for the public to summon the fire department in a fast, efficient manner.  Together with Moses G. Farmer, a renowned electrical engineer, they designed and built what became known as the “Fire Alarm Telegraph”.

  Boston Fire Alarm Box – 1851

John Nelson Gamewell was born in Camden, South Carolina, in 1822 and died at Hackensack, New Jersey, on July 19, 1896.  He saw the Channing and Farmer fire alarm system, recognized its value, and in 1855 purchased the rights to construct the fire alarm in the southern and western states.  In 1859 he purchased all of the patents and launched his career in the Fire Alarm Telegraph field devoting his entire business life to its introduction and improvement.

His business venture was cut short from 1861 to 1865 during the Civil War.  As a southerner, Gamewell had returned to South Carolina and the U.S. Government confiscated all his patents on the Fire Alarm Telegraph system and proceeded to sell them at public auction.  An employee, John Kennard of Boston, went to Washington prepared to pay $20,000 for the patents.  He bought them for the meager sum of $80.00 and returned them to Gamewell after the war. Shortly after the wars’ end, Gamewell again actively pursued the business under the name “American Fire Alarm Telegraph, John N. Gamewell & Company, Proprietor”.

In 1879, John Gamewell reorganized his company under the new name of “Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph Company”, made significant changes in the size and appearance of the fire alarm box and made improvements in its signaling mechanisms.  The “American Fire Alarm Telegraph” era came to an end but under the reorganization, the name “Gamewell” would become synonymous with Fire Alarm Telegraph.

Twin Cities Fire Alarm Telegraph
The Systems, 1873 – 1880

  The first Fire Alarm Telegraph system came to Minnesota as the result of a petition signed by 300 citizens of Saint Paul.  It was presented to its City Council in November 1872, and by April of 1873, a fire alarm telegraph system had been installed in Saint Paul.

  At the initial testing of the system on April 4, 1873, Saint Paul had invited members of the Minneapolis City Council and officers of the Minneapolis Fire Department to attend.  According to an article appearing in the ‘Minneapolis Column’ of the St. Paul Pioneer Press on April 5, 1873 — “Quite a number of the firemen of this city, accompanied by the Chief of the Department and officers of the Association, went to St. Paul, yesterday, to observe the workings of the fire alarm telegraph in that city.  Unexpectedly, none of the Committee on Fire Department put in an appearance.  Those who watched the operation of the apparatus were highly gratified at the result.  Indeed, a fire alarm telegraph has become an essential to every well-regulated city, and Minneapolis greatly feels the need of one.”

  By September of the following year, Minneapolis had installed a similar system.  Both systems were the American Fire Alarm Telegraph, manufactured and sold by John Gamewell  & Company, New York.

  Several factors: (1) dates of installation; (2) instructions provided key holders for turning in an alarm of fire; (3) description of how the systems operate; and (4) both cities having volunteer fire departments, indicate the two cities had the “Automatic” system, as described below, instead of a “Central Station System” that would be forthcoming in future years as both cities expanded in size and population.

  A Gamewell & Co. catalog of the era describes the Automatic System as follows:

The Automatic Central Office is furnished with a battery, lightning arrester, switch-boards, and galvanometers, and is located in an engine house, city hall, police station, or other public building, and is connected by telegraph wires with as many street signal boxes and bell strikers or whistle blowers, and engine-house gongs and indicators, as the size of the city or town may require.

It may, if desired, have call bells and registers similar to the manual central office, but its essential feature is the automatic repeater and transmitter, which instantaneously sends out over all circuits, and to every alarm station (box), each signal received from any of the alarm boxes in any part of the system.

It is so arranged that a signal on any circuit is instantly repeated on all others; but if that signal is caused by a break of the wire, the repeater, after sounding one blow on the other circuits, throws the one disabled out of service, leaving the others intact.  As soon as the broken circuit is repaired, the repeater automatically takes it into service.  The use of this instrument enables us to connect the signal boxes, bell-strikers, gong-strikers, and indicators, directly with each other, on two or more circuits, all the circuits acting and re-acting on each other, without human intervention, at the central office.

It may be properly said that our automatic telegraph WATCHES ITSELF.  If a battery becomes too weak to work efficiently, or an intentional or accidental interruption occurs to any part of the wire, in an instant notice is given by one blow upon all the alarm bells and gongs, calling Attention! to its temporary disabled condition; thus not only keeping watch over the city, but actually watching itself, and guaranteeing reliability every moment.

In a complete Automatic System, such as is herein briefly described, any one who discovers a fire, by opening an alarm box and by (pulling the hook down once), can start into life a series of electric and mechanical movements by means of which bells, whistles, and gongs miles apart are instantaneously sounded, not only alarming firemen and citizens, but announcing to them the locality of the fire.

The cost of an automatic central office system will range from $2,500 to $10,000 or more, according to the number and extent of circuits, and the amount of apparatus required.

In this system no night watchman is required.

Another Gamewell catalog of the era added the following regarding the Automatic Central Office:

All of the apparatus is so simple, durable, and easily understood that it does not require the attention of a skilled electrician, and can easily be taken care of by any person of good judgment and ordinary intelligence.  The cost of its maintenance is very slight, and consists of nothing more than the repairs which may be required by accidents to the lines, and to supply the small amount of inexpensive materials needed for the battery.

The Fire Alarm (or Signal) boxes in the initial installations were much larger than later models. The “cottage style” box measured 18-5/8” high, 12-3/8” wide, and 5-1/8” deep, was constructed of cast-iron, and weighed about 75 pounds. Add to that the 10-pound cast-iron bracket for mounting the box to a utility pole or side of a building, and you have a box installation amounting to 85 pounds of indestructible weight. Cast into the peak above the door was the year of manufacture, i.e. “1873”, the cast inscription on the outer door reads: American Fire Alarm Telegraph Station, Gamewell & Co., New York, along with a large cast-bronze box number plate, and a lock.  The interior consisted of a square cast-iron box whose locked door contained the operating instructions of “Pull Lever Down Once and Let Go”.  Inside was a cast-iron bowl and cover that housed the bronze clockwork operating mechanism. No change in size or appearance would occur until after 1879.

Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph Station after 1879

Fire Alarm Boxes produced by Gamewell after the company reorganization in 1879, and purchased by the two cities, were smaller and somewhat different in appearance with improvements to the operating mechanism. Still sporting the “cottage style” outer shell, their dimensions now measure 16-3/4” high, 10-1/2” wide, and 5” deep.  Cast into the peak above the door is the new Gamewell trademark of a ‘hand grasping lightning bolts’.  The cast inscription on the outer door reads:  “Fire Alarm Telegraph Station, The Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph Company, New York ”, accompanied by a cast-bronze box number plate and a ‘trap-key’ lock.  The interior consisted of a square cast-iron box whose locked door contained the operating instructions of “Pull Lever Down Once and Let Go”.  Inside was a cast-iron bowl with a glass cover that housed the bronze clockwork operating mechanism.  Reducing the size of the box brought the overall weight down to about 65 pounds.

Operating instructions on inner box door

These early fire alarm boxes were of the “Sector” variety capable of transmitting up to five rounds of signal on one pull depending on how it was ordered from the factory.  Saint Paul chose the 5-round box while Minneapolis chose the 4-round box.  The “Sector Box” mechanism drive power is set in motion by the act of pulling a lever down which would either:

1.    Raise a weight allowing its gravity drop to motivate the clockwork mechanism, or

2.   Wind a mainspring to sufficient tension to motivate the clockwork mechanism.

If two or more boxes on the same circuit were pulled at the same time, they would interfere with each other and cause a jumbled signal (a problem rectified in later years).  Hence the instructions to “pull lever down once and let go”, and, “do not to operate the box if the bell inside is heard striking”.

(Weight-sector boxes were preferred over Spring-sector boxes in northern climates, as extremely cold weather would cause the mainspring to snap.)

Interior of an 1874 weight-sector fire alarm box

The public was not allowed to operate a fire alarm box to report a fire.  They had to contact a key holder who had to verify that: (1) there was a fire, (2) the fire was in the vicinity of the box to be pulled, (3) operate the box according to specific instructions, and (4) wait at the box until firemen arrived to direct them to the fire.

The first alarm struck on the new Fire Alarm Telegraph System in St. Paul was from Box 12 located at 3rd and Washington Streets on May 7, 1873 at 11 P.M.

The first alarm struck on the new Fire Alarm Telegraph System in Minneapolis was from Box 13 located at 2nd and Washington Avenues South on October 7, 1874 at 3:15 A.M.

All apparatus involved in the Fire Alarm Telegraph were “Electro-Mechanical” devices with their operation dependent on a small amount of electricity, the electro-magnet, and gravity or spring-tension.  A small amount of electric current was constant on the circuit(s) at all times which provided a way of determining that the circuit was in working order.  It’s when the circuit was broken that things begin to happen.  A broken wire on any circuit would cause the alerting instruments (bells, gongs, whistles) to sound one blow, indicating something was wrong and would have to be located and repaired.

  Engine House Gong Bell Striking Machine Whistle Blowing Machine  

By 1880, both cities had paid fire departments and were growing in area and population.  The need for public announcement of a fire alarm on the bell or whistle would soon come to an end with the alarms going directly to the engine house gongs where on-duty firefighters would answer the call.

Overall, the Fire Alarm Telegraph was a rather ingenious invention.