From yesteryear…

…but photographed yesterday!  Of course, I Shopped it to the nth degree!

Gamewell Fire Alarm (c. early 20th century)

From Wikipedia:

Fire alarm call box

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 fire alarm telegraph wire, indicating the box number. The receiver at a fire station then can match the number to the neighborhood. The boxes are a form of street furniture still in service in many places, though many towns and cities have removed them due to cost of maintaining the obsolete system. This action has been blocked by courts in New York, where the boxes are seldom used for any purpose bar making hoax calls.


The first practical fire alarm system utilizing the telegraph system was developed by Dr. William Channing and Moses G. Farmer in 1852. Two years later, they applied for a patent for their “Electromagnetic Fire Alarm Telegraph for Cities”. In 1855, John Gamewell of South Carolina purchased regional rights to market the fire alarm telegraph, later obtaining the patents and 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 gained a 95% market share.

Usefulness during communications disruptions

In New York City there are 15,000 call boxes. The September 11, 2001 attacks knocked out cell phone service for a large part of the 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, are powered from a separate supply and will likely continue to work in the face of outages of both electrical and telephone systems.


Decommissioned fire alarm boxes have become an item which people collect. Some are collected as-is for their historical significance, while others are used for decoration.


There are still many of these in Chicago.




4 responses to “From yesteryear…

    • Very ‘early last century’, and apparently, Mr. Gamewell was quite the entrepreneur. They are a constant reminder of a simpler time. In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire decimated what is now the Loop, Downtown, and burned as far west as the river (and beyond, a bit). I would imagine the local government was still concerned, and therefore had this type of telegraphy installed.

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