Image of Hudson,
Mass Box 5111

Fire Alarm Telegraph Systems

"If you pick up the telephone receiver in this town you may, or may not, get a dial tone. If you get on a subway you may, or may not, get stuck in a tunnel for an hour. The wall socket in your apartment may, or may not, contain electricity. The city's air may, or may not, be killing you. The only real sure thing in this town is that the firemen come when you pull down the handle on that red box." - Dennis Smith, speaking of New York City in the 60's and 70's, from his book Report From Engine Company 82. (Thanks to Orange, Mass. Fire Department's Training Officer Robert Laford for reminding me of this quote!)

The first Fire Alarm Telegraph was installed in Boston, Massachusetts in 1852. The first alarm recorded was on April 26 of that year. At one time, almost every city with a Fire Department used these systems. Recently, due to the spread of 9-1-1 and especially E9-1-1, these systems are disappearing.

I'm looking for help on this page. Any files you can contribute would be welcome. Sound files of station gongs or radio tappers would be fun, too. Thanks to Ed Halcomb of Box 13 Associates in Portage MI for the .wav of a Gamewell 10" gong! I also want to add to the list of cities that still have box alarm systems (for Mass, I may make a list of towns that don't have them!). I'd also like to get more box lists. If you can help, notify me at firebox at this domain.

So. What's so interesting about Fire Alarm Telegraph systems? Well, a couple of things. First, box alarms are probably the only 19th century technology that is still in everyday use. It's in use because, simply, it works. No VLSI chips, no routers, no ISO 7 layer model. Just a clockwork wheel that breaks a circuit.

Here's what happens when you pull the box to report a fire. All the boxes in a neighborhood or even a town are on the same circuit. When you pull the hook, the switch trips a clockwork motor. The motor turns a notched wheel. The notches break the circuit. The notches on the wheel are arranged to send a pattern of signals to the Fire Alarm Office. For instance, Box 5111's code wheel has 5 notches, a space, another notch, space, notch, space, notch.

The spring eventually unwinds and to this day, one can hear fire companies in Boston being ordered to "wind box 1511" ...

Each time the circuit is broken, a relay that had been held open by the box circuit closes causing a bell to ring and a paper hole punch register to start.

Once the box is recieved at the fire alarm office, it is retransmitted over "house circuits" to the fire houses where it is received on a recording device like the one at left. The firefighter "on the watch" copies the number, then pulls the running card corresponding to the box.

Note that each line corresponds to an "alarm". This is where the terms "first alarm", "second alarm", etc come from. Each box has a different amount of resources assigned to it depending on the what is located nearby.

From the looks of it, New Bedford, Massachusetts, may have the best preserved example of a Gamewell-type system still in existence. Their site also has excellent images of their alarm room.

Cities with operating box alarm systems

Most municipal fire alarm telegraph equipment was and still is manufactured by the Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph Company. The Gamewell Company still exists and still provides equipment. This page is not endorsed by the Gamewell Company.

Articles, Citations, and links about Fire Alarm Telegraph Systems

Some library citations:

Usenet (and other) articles about Fire Alarm Telegraph Systems

Striking Box (according to Web-Counter Initial box, Feb 2, 1996)

Hudson, Mass, Box 5111 image courtesy of R. B. Allen, Co Inc - Fire alarm contractor. "ERS"" style box image courtesy of Digitize, Inc

Yikes! Can't keep up with the folks who've contributed, let alone keep up the lists! Suffice it to say that this list would not be possible without the hundreds of contributions from the net. Thanks to all! - Peter / Saturday, 16-Oct-2021 08:37:38 MST