Today, an important technology whose very use is
risk-taking. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
A fire station sat
catty-corner from our house in St. Paul in the
1930s -- two-story, red brick. Firemen sat outside
and played cribbage on summer days. We kids hung
around wondering if they'd ever let us slide down
the brass pole. They never did.
When the alarm sounded, firemen threw on their
rubber gear. Some really did slide down the brass
pole. They'd jump on a running board, grab a
handle, and hang on like grim death as the trucks
careened away to save houses, lives -- or a cat up
I think about that on the way back from a weekend
trip to Beaumont, Texas. We had to detour 100 miles
around the San Jacinto River to get there. In a
major disaster the river flooded and was then set
afire by a broken fuel main. I visited Beaumont's
superb Fire Museum with equipment dating back to
the late 1700s. Their oldest item was a
hand-carried pump. Later pumps were horse-drawn and
arranged so that 14 people could work the handles.
Mid-19th-century pumps were still horse-drawn, but
now they carried a portable steam pumping engine.
The great hook-'n'-ladder trucks that once so
caught my imagination were horse-drawn until just
before WW-I. By then we had separate vehicles for
the pumps and inlet hoses, for the high-pressure
hoses, and for the ladders. Fire departments also
took over ambulance service after WW-II. Before
that, ambulances had been run by funeral parlors.
By the 1930s we'd added light trucks for
illuminating night fires. The truck in Beaumont,
with its arrays of searchlights, is the very one
that a young reporter named Walter Cronkite rode to
New London in 1937. The worst natural gas explosion
in history had just killed 300 school children, and
he was covering the story. That truck grimly
reminds me what the Museum really means.
My last Beaumont stop was a used-book store where I
turned up a book on the San Francisco earthquake
and fire. It'd been rushed into print just months
after the disaster had killed 700 people. We had a
craving to read about fire-fighting heroics.
So today I went to the horse's mouth. I visited a
Houston fire station. It had a ladder truck, a
pump-and-hose truck, and an ambulance. There were
the old functions honed and improved.
Two captains talked about their routines and their
late-20th-century versions of the old fire-fighting
machinery. As I left, one stopped me. Something was
on his mind. He said, "You know, this isn't just a
career. It's a way of life."
This was the oddest weekend -- a major natural
disaster followed by a chain of chance encounters.
It woke me up to this interweaving of highly-honed
technology and risk-taking -- of machinery and the
unrelenting human drama of its use.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The Fire Museum of Texas is located at 400 Walnut at
Mulberry, Beaumont, TX 77701, Telephone 409-880-3792.
Wilson, J.R., San Francisco's Horror of
Earthquake and Fire: Terrible Devastation and
Heart-Rending Scenes ... Philadelphia:
Percival Supply Co., undated. (Although the book is
undated, it has an owner inscription made on Sept.
7, 1906. The earthquake and fire occured on April
I am grateful to the ladder-truck captain and the
pump-truck captain at Houston Fire Station No. 33,
and to Ms. Rebecca Woodland, Curator of the Fire
Museum of Texas, for their discussions.
From the 1832 Edinburgh
Typical Early-19th-Century Fire-Fighting
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Photo by John Lienhard
A 1930s vintage hose truck, Wharton, Texas, Fire
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