“Where’s my bucket?”

Imagine waking up to gunshots being fired and church bells ringing, and having that be your first thought. While this might be an absurd reaction today, it was actually quite common in the early days of America. Before there were city fire fighters or ways to alert organized volunteers, it was the responsibility of everyone in the neighborhood to assist in dousing any out of control flames. Without access to modern inventions such as fire alarms and fire engines, communities would use anything at their disposal to alert the community of imminent danger. As this was before there were telephones or loudspeakers, citizens would use the loudest things they could get their hands on; specifically, firearms and church bells.

Today’s fire alarms communicate in milliseconds specific information about a buildings cry for help when a fire is automatically detected by sensors placed throughout the location. This technology largely owes its thanks to a couple of ambitious inventors from the 19th century.

Moses Farmer and Dr. William Channing invent the first fire alarm

Back in the 1840s, Dr. William Channing was an influential member of Bostonian society, and a big proponent of using the recently developed telegraph as a way to protect Boston from fires. After years of lobbying government officials and swaying public opinion through newspapers, Dr. Channing was given permission and funding to develop the world’s first electric fire alarm system.

Dr. Channing knew that he would need technical expertise to complete his ambitious project, so he enlisted the help of his colleague Moses Farmer. Moses was a telegraph engineer who enjoyed tinkering with inventions whenever he could, which made him the perfect partner for Dr. Channing. In 1852 they completed and patented the “Electromagnetic Fire Alarm Telegraph for Cities”.

Farmer and Channing’s fire alarm used wired telegraph boxes on 40 Boston streets, which connected to a municipal building in the center of town. Back in the 1850s, telegraphs were still a new invention, and very few people knew how to operate them properly. The genius of Farmer and Channing’s system was that very little knowledge of telegraphy was required to operate the boxes which led to it being used in cities across the country. A manual crank attached to the box would automatically send a preprogrammed telegraph to the “central station”, which would communicate the location of the specific box and that there was an emergency. Many of these boxes can still be seen today standing guard on the streetcorners in some of the larger cities like San Fransisco and Boston.

The innovative, effective, and user-friendly interface helped Farmer and Channing sell their patent, and by 1910 the technology was being used in almost every city in the United States.

Modern fire alarms are still based on Dr. Channing and Mr. Farmer’s original design

Although fire alarm systems have advanced alongside new technologies, they still operate on the same basic premise as Dr. Channing and Mr. Farmer’s original design. Wireless telegraphs and phone lines were eventually used to transmit fire alarms more reliably, and today fire alarm systems are highly redundant and automated thanks to cellular backups and sophisticated fire sensors.

Transmitting a signal to a cell tower is certainly a safer way to alert fire fighters than shooting a gun in the air, and it is all thanks to a couple of ambitious inventors from Boston!

Be sure to check out our next installment, when we discuss the history of security cameras!

For more information about Mijac Alarm and how we can protect your home or business from fires and other threats, visit the main Mijac website by clicking here, or call us at (909)982-7612!

written by Ian Eckstein and Steve Sopkin

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