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History of the Boston Fire Alarm Telegraph System

Written by Joe Maurath, Jr.View Icon Profile
Reprinted from the August 1997 Yankee Pole Cat Insulator Club Newsletter

Soon after the invention of the telegraph by Samuel F.B. Morse in 1844, the concept of utilizing this method of communication for reporting fires by means of fire alarm signal boxes, wired to the nearest fire station, was realized. This meant that the fire dispatch teams knew of the citizen's call for help immediately and could respond to the location much more rapidly. Pioneer fire alarm telegraph systems originated in the larger United States cities and had greatly spread in popularity in most other communities, especially in the East, by 1900. Of interest is the Boston Fire Alarm system, since it was among the first and certainly utilized a great many glass insulators that are highly sought after today. The introduction of this system revolutionized communications by permitting messages to be transmitted instantly over long distances.

On May 30, 1845 Dr. William F. Channing of Boston and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University published an article in the Boston Daily Advertiser describing in general terms how a practical fire alarm telegraph system in the city of Boston could be constructed.

He convinced the Boston City Government in 1851, when funds were appropriated for the construction of such a system, based upon plans he devised with his associate, Moses G. Farmer, a telegraphic engineer. This was to be the first fire alarm telegraph system of its type in the world.

This system embodied all of the principles of fire alarm telegraphy in use today; namely, a closed electrically supervised assembly of circuits, street fire alarm boxes with code wheels and key breaks determining the number of current interruptions which produced coded signals on local instruments at a central office where an operator transmitted signals received over separate fire alarm circuits to the appropriate fire house. The system also featured telegraphic communication by key and sounder between individual street boxes and the central office.

The completed system was placed in service at 12 noon on April 28, 1852 with the first fire alarm office located in the City Building at Court Square and Williams Court. Staff included a superintendent, fire alarm operators and repairmen. These were the first positions of their type in the world

The original system had 40 street boxes on 3 box circuits and 19 alarm bells on the three circuits. The first alarm sent on the system took place on April 29, 1852 at 8:25 p.m. All of the boxes were of the manual crank type with locked outside doors, and the boxes were painted black. The first sector type boxes, started by simply pulling the hook, were introduced experimentally in 1864.

A new fire alarm office with improved equipment was placed into service on December 26, 1865 in the top story of the then-new City Hall building at 45 School Street. Here, as was the case at the Court Square office, all the circuits entered the office overhead, all outside wiring being of the aerial type.

On December 11, 1868 the purchase and delivery of the sector type boxes was authorized and within a short time all of the original crank type units were replaced.

To establish communication between headquarters in the city, the central office and various district headquarters, so called dial telegraph instruments were introduced in 1874.

To provide more rapid access to the boxes for the purpose of giving alarms, the first keyless (T-handle) door was placed in service, on Box No. 42 at the intersection of Tremont and Winter Streets on April 16, 1881. On May 2, 1881 it was ordered that fire alarm boxes in the city were to be painted red instead of black.

On February 28, 1882 the Fire Alarm Division ordered the installation of telephones at the fire alarm central office, headquarters and most fire houses; however, the system was not entirely completed until about 1885.

During late 1892 the first underground fire alarm cable was installed with the first connections made to this cable on June 14, 1893. The first box to be connected to this underground service was Box 54 on Beech Street. In 1894 a few boxes were equipped with red electric lamp indicators for the first time.

On May 20, 1895 a new fire alarm office was placed into service and the new headquarters at 60 Bristol Street featured modern equipment. Here, for the first time, all fire alarm circuits entered the building through underground ducts. By October 29, 1907 all fire alarm boxes in the city of Boston were equipped with keyless doors.

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Written Sunday, August 17, 1997