Thursday, April 10, 2008

Book note: The Fire Engine: An Illustrated History

I am also currently reading The Fire Engine: An Illustrated History, by Simon Goodenough, Chartwell Books, c.1978, reprinted 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1989 by the time my copy came out. The pictures are wonderful, but so is the text. I'm learning quite a bit about ways of fighting fires, about technology, about cultures, about history (with an emphasis on English and American history). Oh, also about the basic characteristics of fire. There's a glossary, a listing of manufacturers, and a bibliography.

It's a livelier history than you might suspect. For instance, ancient Romans who relied on slaves to fight fires found them not always too keen on putting out fires, especially those that might harm a harsh or unpopular master, but switching to paid firefighters had its drawbacks, too:

Of course, there was one considerable disadvantage to the Vigiles, in contrast to the Familia Publica: the Vigiles had to be paid out of the public pocket. This needed some persuasion, but on the whole it was seen that it was cheaper to pay out money to the corps than to lose one's entire wealth in a fire; the efficiency of the Vigiles was their own justification. Nonetheless, there were complaints against them, and not only because they were expensive. They had their own affiliations which often interfered with their reliability. Supported by the emperors, who were determined to keep them as their own elite force, they were only too happy to subject themselves to political control and reap the many rewards of loyalty to a powerful master. It has even been suggested that political manipulation of the corps may have been responsible for its failure to control Nero's notorious fire of 64 AD.
Chapters include The Enemy...Fire, The Early Days, Pumping by Hand, The Age of Steam, Motor Power, Fire Engines Today.

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