It was 8:25 p.m. on April 29, 1852.
On a Thursday night, concerned citizen J.H. Goodale noticed a small fire coming from a house on the corner of what is now North Washington Street. Rather than yell “fire!” or signal for the church bells to ring, as was customary at the time to alert firefighters, he approached the newly installed electric fire alarm box on the corner of Endicott Street and Cooper Street, rung for help, and made history.
One day earlier, the Boston Fire Department unveiled the world’s first electrical fire alarm telegraph system, an innovative feat installed over two decades before the telephone was invented. Knowingly or not, Goodale ushered in a new era for the fire department — one that would be characterized by instantaneous alerts and quick responses, saving countless buildings and lives from potentially destructive blazes.
In 1844, Samuel F.B. Morse perfected his invention, the electromagnetic telegraph. Morse’s invention sparked the imagination of Boston residents Dr. William F. Channing and Moses G. Farmer, an electrical engineer. Together, the men pushed city officials to install a municipal fire alarm system. After much resistance, the measure passed in 1851.
With call boxes on the streets, the fire alarm system, “was highly successful in reducing property loss and deaths due to fire and was subsequently adopted throughout the United States and in Canada,” said Stephen F. Keeley, superintendent of the Boston Fire Alarm Division, in a statement.
Today, the fire alarm system still serves the community. Over 9,000 calls are put out through the alarm system, which has over 1,200 boxes around the city, Keeley said.
In recent years, the alarm which Goodale rang in Box 1212, has hardly become obsolete. In December 2018, a nationwide network outage left dispatch centers unable to receive calls for emergency services.
At 5:15 a.m. on Dec. 28, 2018, "an astute Boston resident, unable to reach emergency services through the 911 system, used the street fire alarm box to signal a fire in the clothes dryer at 94 Endicott Street in the North End,” Keeley said.
Although the system has been enhanced by “countless major improvements,” the alarm system remains nearly the same, albeit more reliable, as it was on that Thursday night some 168 years ago.
Matt Berg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattberg33.