In our busy lives, it can be hard for us to recognize the importance of everyday things. We don’t often ponder the significance of the random objects we pass on the road to work, something like a fire hydrant. However, when we consider the origins of the fire hydrant, we find that they play a crucial role in keeping our cities safe.
The proof of this comes from the fact that, unless you are a firefighter, you don’t really think about how to put out a fire. However, 100 years ago you were responsible to save your own house or your neighbour’s from a fire. Our modern firefighting units only replaced the neighbourhood bucket brigade because of specialized equipment like the fire hydrant and fire engine.
As fire hydrants advanced, we gained the luxury to not think about how much we need them. However, when you learn their history, you can better appreciate their importance today.
The Change from Random to Strategic Water Supply Systems
Historically, firefighting was not as systematic as today’s effort. At best, ancient cities deployed cisterns to strategic areas to provide quick access to water in case of fire. Wherever it was hard to supply large quantities of water, bucket brigades needed to keep whole neighbourhoods safe from fire.
However, buckets weren’t enough to confront the infernos of larger cities. So by the 16th and 17th centuries, firefighters began using water mains to supply their water. When a fire occurred, firefighters would uncover a main and drill a hole to get to the water supply. The hole was sealed by pre-crafted plugs and the main covered again.
While fire plugs were useful, alone they were not enough to prevent disaster. The fire of London in 1666 showed that random placement of fire plugs were not enough to put out massive fires. After this, London and other European cities created new water mains with pre-drilled fire plugs placed at street level. This way, mains were more accessible to wider parts of the city.
The Beginning of the Standing Hydrant
While fire plugs provided a good source of water, removing the plugs caused critical delays. Fire brigades began carrying portable spouts to get quicker access. Through the 17th and early 18th centuries, permanent valves replaced fire plugs in many European cities. While ground level valves, now known as flush hydrants, spread in Europe, the United States was the first place to use the more iconic fire hydrant.
Philadelphia was the first city with a standing fire hydrant. Designed by Frederick Grant Sr. in 1803, the hydrant was a metal pipe attached to the main. A wooden box encased the pipe and included a lid to cover the valve’s control knob. Oftentimes the lid would lock, as water theft was not uncommon even in the 1800’s.
Within a few years, a cast-iron casing replaced the wooden box and became a common sight in major US cities. Citizens considered their local hydrants as novel inventions and a source of community pride. Local hydrant companies decorated their hydrants with different colours to show that pride. Standardization of hydrant colour only emerged later.
The Basic Features of Fire Hydrants Emerge
Two major designs for hydrants evolved from their initial introduction. Grant’s initial design was a dry barrel hydrant, which placed the valve and water supply below ground. This prevented water from freezing in the winter. However, towards the latter half of the 18th century, a new ‘wet barrel’ hydrant appeared in California. Best in warm climates, wet barrel hydrants place the valve above the ground to have quicker access to water.
By the 1850s, fire hydrants worked and functioned much like today’s systems. Hydrants developed outlets to adapt to the day’s fire hoses. Fire hydrants also adopted new anti-theft devices designed for special wrenches. By the turn of the century, the basics of fire hydrant design were well established.
The Fire Hydrant Adapts to the Modern World
With the basics determined, the new demands of the modern world caused fire hydrants to adapt in the 20th and 21st centuries. New fire hydrant designs delivered more water when needed. They became crucial instruments in putting out fires fast and efficiently.
Security has always been a concern for fire hydrants. With the popularity of cars, fire hydrants faced a unique challenge. Collisions could lead to geysers of wasted water and supply problems in local systems. In response, dry barrel compression hydrants added an extra valve protection under the hydrant, while the base of hydrant was manufactured with breakable components to protect the water main.
As threats of metal theft, vandalism, and even terrorism increase, manufacturers have introduced new protection systems that make unauthorized use of hydrants more difficult.
While hydrants have stayed mostly the same for the last hundred years, new improvements have developed to increase security and efficiency. These measures protect neighbourhoods and homes from extensive fires, while ensuring the city’s water supply is used well and stays safe. Take advantage of the changes in fire hydrants and do more research on the latest advances available today. Contact Terminal City Iron Works with any other fire hydrant questions.