A fire alarm box is an outdoor device used for notifying a fire department of a fire. Early boxes used the telegraph system and were the main method of calling the fire department to a neighborhood in the days before people had telephones. When the box is triggered, a spring-loaded wheel spins and taps out a signal onto the telegraph wire, indicating the box number. The receiver at a fire station then can match the number to the neighborhood. The boxes are still in service in many places, though many towns and cities are now questioning whether they are worth the cost to maintain.
The first practical fire alarm system utilizing the telegraph system was developed by Dr. William Channing and Moses Farmer in 1852. Two years later, they applied for a patent for their "Electromagnetic Fire Alarm Telegraph for Cities". In 1855, John Gamewell purchased regional rights to market the fire alarm telegraph, later obtaining full rights to the system in 1859. John F. Kennard bought the patents from the government after they were seized after the Civil War, returned them to Gamewell, and formed a partnership, Kennard and Co., in 1867 to manufacture the alarm systems. The Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph Co. was later formed in 1879. Gamewell systems were installed in 250 cities by 1886 and 500 cities in 1890. By 1910, Gamewell had a 95% market share.
Advantages and disadvantages
The systems can be expensive to maintain. Some consider the systems to be outdated and that they have outlived their usefulness, given that almost every household has telephone service. More recently, many people carry cell phones that could also be used to call for help in the case of fire. However, others maintain that the systems can provide a necessary lifeline in the case of power and telephone outages or disasters. For example, the September 11, 2001 attacks
knocked out cell phone service for a large part of New York City. If the power is out, people will not be able to charge batteries in portable phones, and VoIP
telephony typically will not work without power. The telegraph alarm boxes, on the other hand, will continue to work in the face of outages of both electrical and telephone systems.
Decommissioned fire alarm boxes have become a collectible item for many people. Some are collected as-is for their historical significance, while others are used for decoration. Entire boxes or parts may be found on popular online auction websites.