The 10 Best Old-Timey Fire Escape Tools


The turn of the 20th century was a fascinating time. Crazy tools were cropping to heed the technological revolution. The Tesla Coil, the phonograph, the light bulb, and the automobile to name just a few. 

Inspired by the innovative, mind-bending, and sometimes outright bizarre inventions of this era, we wanted to take a look at some of the tools from this period that have been put into use in a less known but equally important field: fire escape. As buildings grew taller, people needed to devise better and different ways of escaping should they become caught in a blaze. This is our list of the top 10 fire escape tools from the period.

Before we begin, it seems necessary to make clear that we do admire the work of each of these inventors. No matter how bizarre some of these inventions may seem to the modern eye, these were all innovations aimed at improving fire safety measures and preserving human life. As a modern-day company working towards the same goals, we tip our hats to the early pioneers in our field. Without any further ado, lets look at the 10 best old-timey fire escape tools.

10. An Improved Ladder Truck and Fire Escape

Fire Escape Ladder Truck

Fire Escape Ladder Truck Extended

Patented in 1878 by Joseph R. Winters, this ladder truck fire escape is one of the earliest predecessors of the modern ladder trucks used by most fire departments today. Throughout the 1800’s, as cities were constructing increasingly taller buildings, it became impossible for fire departments to transport traditional ladders that were large enough and stable enough to reach the uppermost floors. Winters’ foldable design allowed the ladder to be easily transported from place to place and quickly raised to the upper stories of a burning building without the need to remove ladders from the truck.

Upon the occurrence of a fire the truck may, as will be perceived, be rapidly transported to its place, and upon its arrival the ladder can be quickly extended to the desired height, offering a ready means of access of the firemen to the fire, as well as a means of escape to any persons confined in the upper portions of the building.
- J. R. Winters, 1878

9. Fire Escape Ladder

Fire escape ladder

Patented in 1905 by Mary J. McArthur, the fire escape ladder is a simple rope ladder design intended to be attached to a windowsill and thrown out the window, providing a route to the ground below. The ladder was adjustable to be able to fit in any sized windowsill and even had a spot to attach a lamp.

A fire-escape ladder comprising supporting means arranged to engage a sill or the like, a ladder connected to said means and comprising longitudinally-arranged cables, a pair of clamping-plates engaging each pair of cables, rungs engaging the cables above the plates and resting upon the latter, said rungs being provided with integral rearward extensions and with strengthening-ribs on their lower surfaces, and clamps engaging the cables above and resting upon the rungs.

- M. J. McArthur, 1905

8. Portable Fire Escape and Elevator

portable fire escape elevator

Patented in 1891 by Bradford W. Flanders, this is a portable external elevator system used to reach the upper stories of a building. The entire elevator structure would be positioned close to a burning building and the platform hoisted to the necessary height. From there, a small chute or bridge would be extended to the windowsill of the burning building to provide a path for anyone trapped inside to escape.

A fire-escape consisting of three vertically-extensible standards forming a triangular frame and having pulleys upon their up per sections for actuating a life car or deck, ropes passing thereover, Winches and ropes for raising and lowering these sections, horizontal braces at the base of the standards, with removable ballast-weights thereon, and a deck or car of suitable configuration attached to said pulley-ropes.

- B. W. Flanders, 1891

7. Suspended Fire Escape

Suspended Fire Escape system

Patented in 1902 by Henry Vieregg, this suspension system is designed to be attached to a frame next to a window, out of which a person will jump while grabbing the rope. The pulley system makes use of centrifugal force to engage the brakes and slow the speed that the person falls, allowing them to descend safely to the ground.

A person desiring to escape seizes one member of the cord, rope, or chain, as shown in Fig. 1, and forthwith jumps out of the window. His weight upon the cord, rope, or chain causes the central pulley, together with the arms, to rotate. This causes the weights to be thrown outward, thus forcing the revoluble brake-shoes into engagement with the stationary annular brake members and checking the speed of the person descending. A heavy person will therefore descend at no greater speed than a light one, for the reason that the excessive pull upon the rope causes the centrifugal brake to act as a more active check.

- H. Vieregg, 1902

6. Houghton’s Fire Escape

Houghton's Fire Escape Ladder

R. H. Houghton’s design for a fire escape was a simple rope with spaced out notches that could be used similar to rungs of a ladder. By anchoring the rope to the floor in a unit, it was designed to be thrown out a window in the event of a fire, providing tenants with an emergency fire escape. Some variations of Houghton’s design included a crate or basket that could be used to lower valuables or a child to the floor as well.

5. Fire Escape Chute

Fire Escape Chute

Patented in the USA in 1890 by Lewis Anidjah, the fire escape chute is a nifty little invention. Essentially it is a box containing two ropes and a fireproof fabric of sorts. In the event of a fire, the box is to be placed next to a window and the guide ropes thrown out the window to the ground below. On the ground, the ends of these ropes are to be attached to a fixed object, such as a nearby fence. Once affixed, the fireproof fabric, which is attached to each of the ropes, can be released creating a slide-like chute from the window to the ground. What’s more, the box itself is designed to be included in pieces of furniture like a couch. This allows the box to be inconspicuously stored in an apartment.

In using my apparatus the box is placed beneath a window, as shown in Fig. 2, and the guide-ropes are then thrown into the streets, the eyes being secured to the railings of the houses opposite or to other convenient objects. The chute a is then thrown from the window, and by means of the ring’s travels along the guide-ropes, till it assumes the position shown in Fig. 1, when the apparatus is ready for use. At the lower end of the chute d is formed a hammock, as shown in Fig. 1, on which persons descending the chute are received.

- L. Anidjah, 1890

4. Fire Escape Parachute

Fire Escape Parachute

Patented in 1916 by Willian L. Bedinger, this early parachute could be folded up very small and was intended to be carried around by people who could use it to leap from a burning building as the situation arose. The parachute would open automatically requiring the user to only fasten a belt around their waist and secure a part of the unit to some fixed object.

It has been my purpose to make a device operating on the principle of a parachute which will be simple in construction and which can be rolled or folded into a very compact form occupying very little space and weighing very little. … The device can be rolled into such compact form that it may be attached to the side of a suit case and then easily carried by a traveler and when it is desired to use the device it is simply necessary to fasten a catch to some solid support and to fasten a belt around the waist of the user.

- W. L. Bedinger, 1916

3. Fire Escape Grapnel

Fire Escape Grapnel

Patented in 1883 by William W. Griffin, this creation is part fire escape tool and part medieval siege weapon. A prong like grapnel attached to what can only be described as a miniature cannon ball is to be shot out of a mortar to either launch the grapnel over the building or into one of its windows carrying a rope up from the ground. The grapnel hooks are then supposed catch on the roof or windowsill to secure it in place. A ladder will be drawn up the attached rope to provide a means for anyone trapped to escape from the fire.  

My invention … consists, first, in a grapnel, having a novel construction and arrangement of parts, to be used in combination with a mortar or gun for firing the same into or over the burning building, and with a ladder for the escape of the inmates thereof.

- W. W. Griffin, 1883

2. Parachute Hat Fire Escape

Parachute Hat Fire Escape

Patented in 1879 by Benjamin B. Oppenheimer, this novel design for a fire escape method is remarkably simple. When you find yourself trapped in a tall building that is ablaze, just reach into your closet, grab your parachute hat, securely fasten it around your chin, and lace up your specially designed thickly padded shoes. With the gear in place, you are ready to leap from your window and float safely down to the ground where your shoes will cushion the impact of your descent.  

This invention relates to an improved fire escape or safety device, by which a person may safely jump out of the window of a burning building from any height, and land, with out injury and without the least damage, on the ground; and it consists of a parachute attached, in suitable manner, to the upper part of the body, in combination with overshoes having elastic bottom pads of suitable thickness to take up the concussion with the ground.

- B. B. Oppenheimer, 1879

1. Fire Escape Wings

 Fire Escape Wings

Patented in 1909 by Pasquale Nigro, this fire escape method may have been inspired by Count Dracula. Yes, when your building catches fire, this fire escape method calls for you to strap on your fabric wings, leap from the flames, and soar through the streets until you can safely reach the ground below. Ironically, this same method is also to be followed when you spot the bat signal. The wings come fully equipped with shoulder straps and a waist strap to secure the user in place.

A fire escape comprising a frame com posed of a central section, and side Sections hinged to the central section, means in connection with the hinges for preventing up ward movement of the side sections with respect to the central section, the side sections being curved toward their outer ends, a covering of fabric material for the frame, straps connected with the central portion for securing said central portion to the shoulders, a loop connected with the fabric material, a belt engaged with the loop, and loops on the side sections for engagement by the hands of the wearer.

- P. Nigro, 1909



There you have it: our list of the 10 best old-timey fire escape tools and methods. We sure have come a long way in the last century. Although, I am a little disappointed that the parachute hat fire escape didn't become more mainstream. Talk about a fashion statement. Which fire escape method on this list was your favorite? 




Are you looking for a slightly more modern fire escape method for your home? Take a look at our curated line of egress windows. Egress windows provide a crucial fire escape route out of a basement. They are an excellent way to keep your family or tenants safe in an emergency situation.  

Leave a comment

Comments must be approved before they are published