Technology that changed Chicago: Calling 911. 1860-1877

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Work began on a fire telegraph system in the early 1860s. Initially the system just connected the fire and police stations to each other.

1864 saw emergency communications take a leap into the modern era. The Fire Telegraph System began with 116 locked boxes. Each firefighter, police officer and certain responsible citizens had keys. Turning a crank would call for fire help. A telegraph key was provided for the police to call back to headquarters. Now it was possible to call and dispatch firefighters remotely.

Improvements to the infant technology were phased in as funds and ingenuity allowed. The police telegraph key apparently saw little or no use as even those policemen who could read didn’t understand Morse code. A dial telegraph communicated between police stations. The sender turned a large brass dial to the letter of the alphabet desired and another dial at the receiving station would echo the letters. The Great Fire of 1871 destroyed much of the system, but it was soon operational again.

The 1877 Fire Department Annual Report gave a good snapshot of the drawbacks and improvements to the system.  That year, the fire alarm system reached a technological perfection that would be in use for the next 100 years. The “Joker” was introduced. The origins of the name seemed unknown at even this early date. The Joker routed an alarm directly from the alarm box on the street or in a large building to the nearest fire station.  Chicago’s version of the Joker automatically opened the firehouse doors, dropped the harness over the horses’ heads, rang the gong and then the firehouse bell.  This saved 20 to 60 seconds.

The video shows an updated fire telegraph in operation at the Orlando Fire Museum.

Updates to the street boxes were still necessary. The original crank mechanism sometimes gave the wrong box number. It was not always possible to find somebody with a key to the box. The state-of-the-art was an unlocked box that sent an alarm merely by opening the door.  New box doors with these improvements were slowly purchased.

The wires strung haphazardly from housetop to housetop were a concern. The bells adorning the top of every firehouse seemed unnecessary and maybe even an incentive to arsonists. Originally the bells called volunteers and nearby citizens with their buckets to the fire. With the telegraph and a professional Fire Department, the bells were obsolete and a drain on the electrical current necessary to run the system.

Next 1877-1900