As early as 400 B.C. hose played a part in fighting fire. In this era, the hose was made out of ox gut. Firemen filled bags with water and then forced them into the ox gut. The water was forced out of these early hoses by either sitting or stomping on the bag and the hose.

In 300 B.C., the Greeks invented an engine. Ctesibius developed a water pump for extinguishing flames. He used atmospheric pressure to fill a cylinder with water. On the downstroke, the water was forced out of the cylinder. The engine consisted of two cylinders with a single pump shaped like an upside down U. Ctesbius also invented a water clock and an organ.

In the first century B.C., another resident from Alexandria named Heron improved Ctesibius’ design. Heron added pistons that forced water out of them by a rocker arm. The rocker arm pivoted on a post. Water was ladled into the top of the apparatus and when a plunger was pushed, water squirted out. Archeologists have discovered the Romans used these engines. Remains have been uncovered in Bolsena, Italy and in Silchester, England.

The Romans had the technology to fight fires and they assigned slaves to battle the blazes for them. They were called Familia Publica. But the slaves had no desire to expose themselves to danger. When fire struck, they came . . . eventually.

Marcus Licinius Crassus saw an opportunity to garner wealth in the firefighting industry. He formed a force of slaves to extinguish the burning buildings. His crew dashed to the scene. Crassus would offer his services for a fee or he would bid on the burning building. If the owner refused his offer, the fire consumed the structure. By this method, Crassus acquired hundreds of homes inexpensively and charged exorbitant rates for them to renters.

In 6 A.D. one-fourth of the city of Rome burned. Following this fire, the Emperor Augustus formed Vigeles. The Vigiles was a fire service with 7,000 freed slaves. The firefighters earned the rights of citizenship after serving for six years. In 100 A.D., free-born men chose to work in the fire service. By this time, there was prestige tied to working for the fire department, equal to being a member of an elite military unit. The Vigiles also received power. If suspicion of fire existed, the men could break into a home. If arson was suspected, the homeowner could be flogged. For 400 years the Vigiles served in Rome. The only major disaster was Nero’s conflagration in 64 A.D. It is possible Nero forced the Vigiles to stand aside.

When the Roman Empire fell and large cities vanished so did the need for firemen and their engines. In the late 1400s, the fire engine would be re-invented. It used a design very much like Ctesibius’ engine.

Ditzel, Paul C. Fire Engines, Firefighters: the Men, Equipment, and Machines, from Colonial Days to the Present. New York: Crown, 1976.

Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944.

James, Peter and Nick Thorpe. Ancient Inventions. New York: Ballantine, 1994. Schmittroth, Linda, ed. Eureka. New York: UXL, 1995.