It’s All Just a Little Bit of History Repeating 

A 166-year-old fire alert system still works.

The 911 emergency call system has been out in Massachusetts for much of today, causing cell phones to blare all manner of warnings that citizens should call local numbers for emergency services. When a fire broke out in Boston’s North End (a few blocks from my own residence), one quick-thinking resident used a street fire-alarm box to successfully signal for help. It turns out, that same location was the site of the world’s very first use of a street box, back in 1852.

The city’s street fire-box system still uses the same basic mechanism as employed in the 1852 boxes: A spring-based system inside the box generates Morse Code-like signals to the a central alarm station that indicate the box’s number, and so its location, without the need for fancy electronics or even an external power supply. The fire-alarm office has been located in the Fenway since 1925.


[Photo courtesy of P. Kafasis]

In case of fire and lack of 911 services, remember this system still exists.