Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 974:
FIRE STATION

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 974.

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 a tree.

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 work.

(Theme music)


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 18, 1906.)

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 Encyclopaedia

Typical Early-19th-Century Fire-Fighting Apparatus



Photo by John Lienhard

A 1930s vintage hose truck, Wharton, Texas, Fire Department


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode