Thread: "Joker" Boxes

  1. #1
    Forum Member

    Join Date
    May 2012

    Default "Joker" Boxes

    I've been trying for YEARS to find someone (ANYONE) who knows, exactly, why the corner Gamewell telegraph boxes were called "Joker" boxes. I can't seem to get an answer from Gamewell, and I was hoping someone might know. I've received a few "guesses" but no one has been able to give the real answer to this one!

    Additional: Ok, gang, I KNOW what the joker boxes were (and the joker stand) and how they worked. I'm trying to find out WHY they were called "JOKER" boxes!
    Last edited by BobHeckman; 06-02-2012 at 08:14 PM.

  2. #2
    Forum Member

    Join Date
    Jun 2001


    This new system was called a "Joker System". The fire alarm box on a corner was "pulled". A trip lever on the inside started a series of cogwheels to turn. Each wheel was so designed to send a signal to the "Fire Tower" (Fire Alarm office), which caused a series of holes to be punched into a tape, each time a hole was punched, a horn sounded. The number on the tape designated a street intersection or street address. The fire alarm office had the capabilities of transmitting this same number signal (box) to the fire stations. Each fire station had a set of card indexes, which indicated the location and the Companies that responded. This was known as the "Joker System". This same system was used until 1977. At this time, the Joker System was discontinued. The system was used from 1882 until 1977 (ninety-five years in service). As more fire alarm boxes were installed, the man on watch in the fire tower was phased out. A man stood watch at the desk, which would be nicknamed the "Joker Stand".

    LFD History Full Text - Louisville Fire -

    At one time, on just about every street corner, there was a fire alarm pull box. In some cities there were thousands of these boxes. This box was connected to a telegraph wire. This one wire went to every fire station in the city. Inside the box was a spring loaded wheel. This wheel had bumps on it that corresponded to the number given to this box. If the box's number was #213, the wheel would have two bumps, then one bump, then three. When the handle on the outside of the box was pulled it released this spring loaded wheel to began turning. The bumps pressed down on a key that sent an electrical signal to every station in the city. At each station a bell would ring out the number of the box and punch holes in a paper tape at the watch desk. The companies who were assigned to respond to this box would then dispatch themselves. Every station kept track of every other station. If a first up company was out on some other call, the second up would have to know this and dispatch themselves. Many departments referred to as the "Joker Box System" or telegraph alarm system. This system was in place from the 1920's (or earlier) to well into the 1960's and 1970's in some cities. (It is still in use in some cities. See note below.)

    If you look closely you will notice that there are no zeros used in this system. How would you ring a zero with a bell?

    After the fire the chief, or his driver, would use a key to open the pull box, rewind the spring and reset the system.

    More details on how this system worked and close up pictures of devices can be found here:



    1876-Joker System invented and developed. The Joker was usually mounted on or near the firehouse watch desk and provided telegraph and telephone communication with the main fire alarm office, or offices, as well as other fire stations. Instruments included an alarm register, a small gong, telegraph sounder, polarized relay and a telephone. An advantage of the Joker was that the telephone or telegraph key could be operated without interrupting a fire alarm signal being received on the register, tape, bell and paper tape take-up reel.


    The Gamewell Joker -- early fire alarm system - Sleepless in Midland
    Last edited by fire5555; 05-31-2012 at 01:10 PM.

  3. #3
    MembersZone Subscriber

    Join Date
    Jan 2007
    Carrollton, TX


    I believe the Gamewell part of the name comes from the actual company and refers to the street boxes. The Joker system refers to the cards at the station. And since one isn't really useful without the other, the term "Gamewell Joker" came to use.

    This is total guess work here, and I just thought of it as I am typing it...but here goes:
    A deck of cards used in a poker hand has no jokers.
    The deck of cards used for the box alarm system had no multiples of 10 because you can't punch a 0.

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