Fire in a Crowded Century


Old-fashioned fire engines had to do much the same jobs as today’s, but they relied on classic physics and plenty of manpower. Curator Erik Goldstein describes the fire engine at the center of a new exhibit at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. Fighting fire was serious business in the 18th century when wooden structures and a lack of running water made fire's threat a grave one. The first fire engines were feats of engineering, functioning on sheer physics and brute strength. Joining us now is Erik Goldstein, the curator with the fun job of digging into the history of an old-fashioned fire engine. Erik, thank you for being here today.

Erik Goldstein: Thank you for having me.

Harmony: Well what a cool an object to get to work with; an old-time fire engine. How is it different than the fire engines we know today?

Erik: It's very different. First of all, it's hand-operated and it's essentially a manual pump. Modern fire engines are obviously much more powerful and in most locations there is a steady water supply, marked by your ubiquitous fire hydrants all over the place. In the 18th century you had a much bigger problem with water supply, so if you couldn't get to a lake or a well or something like that you couldn't work the fire engine. Fire engines today just have an easier time getting access to water supply; it's one of their things. They have hundreds and hundreds of feet of hose on each pumper and it's a much bigger, stronger machine.

Harmony: How can we picture this in our minds? How big is Newsham's fire engine?

Erik: It's not really that big. The cistern, which is the part that holds the water, is kind of about the size of a coffin.

Harmony: I said that this fire engine that's in the collections is the sister to an engine that we know would have been in Williamsburg in the 1700's. Tell me the company that provided that engine and how we came to have it.

Erik: Well, its strong circumstantial evidence. We know that various water pumping fire suppression devices existed in the colonies going back to the mid 17th century. When Newsham's patented fire engines come out in the early 18th century around 1720, they become all the rage. They essentially become the fire engine to have. We know they were ordered for New York, Philadelphia.

Then Williamsburg decides after the burning of the Capitol in 1747 that we needed to have a fire engine here too. There would have been no other clear choice other than one of Newsham's fire engines. So it was the one to have and we believe that's the one they would have purchased.

Harmony: So the engine that we have in our collection now and that will be on display at the museums is not the exact fire engine that was here in the 18th century, but we know it's typical of the same period. That it's probably the same kind as what was here.

Where did we ever find an 18th century fire engine? How did we bring that into our collections?

Erik: We know our original fire engine was originally constructed in the 1740s. Around 1830 it was refurbished by the firm of Hadley Simpkin and Lott in London and at that point it was sold to a Sir Thomas Crawley-Boevey for about £53. Sir Thomas was using this engine or purchasing this engine for his country estate in Gloucestershire known as Flaxley Abbey. It remained at Flaxley Abbey until sometime slightly before 1960 when it was purchased by a local antiques dealer who then sold it to Colonial Williamsburg.

Harmony: When Newsham patented his engine, what was he patenting? What was different about his engine compared to the ones that came before?

Erik: It was better. It was better on a number of different levels. First off, it was on wheels. Not that other fire engines didn't come with wheels, but certain earlier fire engines were on sleds so they more or less had to be dragged; made it very difficult to get such a heavy thing to a fire. The real thing had to do with the pumping mechanism. While most other fire engines or all other fire engines would pump water in sporadic spurts, Newsham's fire engine kept a continuous stream of water shooting out of it which made it a much more effective water-spraying device.

Harmony: How much water could that engine move?

Erik: Quite a bit. Our fire engine is the fourth size, and it would pump about 125 gallons per minute.

Harmony: And how big was the tank?

Erik: The tank, oddly enough, was 125 gallons.

Harmony: So does that mean you have to put out your fires within a minute?

Erik: No, what it means is that you need a bucket brigade, which is a line of men, women, children, anybody who could help that had many, many leather fire buckets that were constantly filling them and dumping the contents into the cistern. So it was real, real work to keep that fire engine "playing on the fires," as they would term it.

Harmony: It's kind of a marriage of older technology and newer technology. The bucket brigade still needs to feed this engine. So when it's full and it's on wheels, I'm imagining, it has to get moved somehow. Is this something you would have hooked up to a team of horses?

Erik: Not this particular model. Some fire engines were horse-pulled. You see that a lot more in the 19th century. This model is designed to be pulled by men. There is one way around the bucket brigade though. If your hose is long enough and the fire is near enough to a pond or a lake or a stream or some body of water you could run the hose right into the water and just pump directly out of that body of water. So it was a very useful machine. The way that Newsham billed this is, yes it's a fire engine, but you could also water your garden with it and you could also use it to drain swampy areas of land, so it was a very useful device.

Harmony: So let's says there's a fire. How is this going to play out? Somebody has to go get the fire engine out of the shed?

Erik: It's pretty complicated. First of all the fire has to be noticed. If it's in a building that's unoccupied, it's going to be a while before people notice it. Once it's noticed, the fire alarm is raised. Hopefully the necessary people can get to the fire engine, haul the fire engine to the site. Hopefully there will be enough of a water supply through the bucket brigade or drawing the water out of a well or a body of water.

Then you have to hope the fire engine's going to work, because they require a lot of maintenance and that always seems to be a problem with these things. Then, best-case scenario, what you are really seeking to do with a fire engine of this sort is not put the fire out and save the house. That would be optimal, but wasn't realistic during the period. What they were trying to do is get the original building wet enough that the fire didn't communicate to the buildings nearby it.

Harmony: We said that it works on physics and involves a pump. What are those physics? How does the fire engine really function?

Erik: You have what are called brakes that are these two long handles running down the sides of the machine. They're pumped up and down and by that, they work pistons within two bronze cylinders that are housed within the super structure of the engine that draws in water, and at the same time pumps it out the nozzle. The nozzle is a long nozzlely-looking thing that sits atop the fire engine that would be directed by one individual in the right direction. It's interesting to note that Newsham's fire engines could pump water with such great force that the water stream would actually break through the windows of the structure that was on fire, and enable some water to get to the interior of the burning building. It was a very effective item.

Harmony: When this object became part of our collection and we brought it into the Conservation Building and you got a chance to really look at it closely, what were some of the first things you did to the engine to start understanding its story and understanding its history?

Erik: The first thing we do when we get it to the Conservation Lab is document it and start taking it apart. Our goals for the conservation of this fire engine had to do with documenting it, analyzing it and stabilizing it and also cleaning it to the largest extent we could. We had no intention of making it function, and we also had no intention of making this look like new. So our goals were to really preserve as much of the original information as possible.

Harmony: So you didn't try to make it function. Did you see any signs though that it would or would not function if you did try to fill it with water?

Erik: I would think it definitely wouldn't function. These were very difficult to maintain during the period. There are lots of things that can leak and if you don't have this thing completely sealed up you're not going to get the proper suction that you need. So I would say it definitely wouldn't work.

As far as making this thing work we really don't have the need to. Back in the 1980s a team of about 70 folks from Historic Trades copied this thing from top to bottom so we do have a functioning exact replica of this Newsham fire engine that does work. It's our philosophy that we use the original as a document and then we make a reproduction of the original and then we use the reproduction to analyze the function of the original piece.

Harmony: Newsham's fire engine is the centerpiece of an exhibit at the DeWitt Wallace Museum this winter. Tell me about that exhibit and what you're trying to tell with the way that you laid out the artifact and the information around it.

Erik: It's a pretty exciting exhibit. It's not very often that we put up an exhibit that's based just on one object, but this is such an important, big, exciting object that we couldn't resist. First I'd like to mention that we did have a sponsor for this. The exhibit is sponsored by the Ambrose and Ida Fredrickson Foundation; paid for the whole thing.

It's a wonderful installation that talks about the history of fire in colonial AmErika, the philosophies behind fire fighting and fire prevention, Benjamin Franklin's contributions to the field of fire fighting. It also talks about this particular fire engine, Newsham's patents and it even includes video footage of our reproduction Newsham fire engine actually working. So guests will be able to come, see the original fire engine and then see a video that actually details how this thing works. It's pretty exciting.

Harmony: Erik, thank you so much for being here today. I can't wait to come see the exhibit.

Erik: I can't wait for you to see it and I look forward to hearing what you think of it.

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