Firefighting Technology-Circa 1909

San Diego Steam Fire Engine, Circa 1904

“Tea kettles,” or “steamers,” were apparently nicknames firefighters used for the horse-drawn steam fire engines in San Diego in the early 1900s. In 1961, The Journal of San Diego History published an article by Clarence Woodson, a retired firefighter, in which he talked about the city fire department when he first joined in 1906. His account provides some interesting details on just how those “steamers” functioned.

The steam engine on the rig ran the pump which pumped water through the fire hoses. That required a head of steam heated in a boiler. A supply of coal and kindling was kept in a grate below the boiler, ready to be ignited when the fire alarm bell went off.

“Of course,” wrote Woodson, “it takes time to get up steam from a cold boiler, and in firefighting you don’t have much time. So the water was kept just below the boiling-point by a gas flame from a pipe which ran into the firebox.”

When the fire alarm bell rang, Woodson wrote, “you’d pull a string which shut off the gas, and yank the pope out of the firebox.” The firefighter would then pull a cord which then released “a vial of sulphuric acid, down under the grate bars.” The acid emptied into “a little iron cup full of a chemical which ignited the instant the acid hit it, igniting the coal and kindling above it.

The fire alarm also, according to Woodson “automatically released the chain in front of each horse’s stall….” Each horse was trained to trot out and take their place in a harness that was hung from an iron frame suspended from the ceiling. The horses’ collars were designed to be quickly snapped into the harness, after which a weighted pulley system yanked the frame up and clear of the rig.

If all that sounds pretty complicated, these folks had it down pat. According to Woodson, “Even if we were asleep when the alarm came in, we could get out of the station in 20 seconds.”

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