Today, fire escapes. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
We all know and use the term
fire escape. Of course it can mean many
things, but, when we hear it, we think of exterior
iron ladders, with platforms at each window, down
the side of a building.
We think of those iron ladders, but we see very few
of them today. Outside of action movies and love
stories, where they continue to make fine props,
the fire escape had a rather short life.
We began building upward in the mid-nineteenth
century. Six and seven-story office buildings and
tall tenement houses came before the creation of
elevator-served, steel-framed skyscrapers. Many of those old
buildings had only one open wooden stairwell. When
there were stairwell doors, they often opened
Historian Sara Wermiel tells how, when catastrophic
fires reached those buildings in the 1870s, state
legislatures finally enacted laws requiring means
for getting people out.
All this meant new technology, and what means were
devised! Elementary: equip each
upper room with a long rope.
Fantastic: a hat-like parachute,
anchored under the chin, and boots with highly
elastic soles. Practical: canvas
escape chutes, like those used on jet airplanes
today. Rube Goldberg: a rope and
pulley system that let a person lower herself in a
The familiar American 'skeleton' fire
escape finally emerged. And that artifact has
become as familiar as the farm windmill or the
railroad depot. Yet where are they? Here in the
young city of Houston, fire escapes are very hard
to find. You'll do better looking for them in older
towns — New Haven or St. Paul.
In fact, they have many huge shortcomings. Fires
come out windows in floors below the one you're on.
They invite traffic jams. The final ladder, raised
above street-level to thwart thieves, very often
jams when you reach it. And, despite that ladder,
fire escapes can provide unwanted access into
The beginning of the end for the old iron fire
escape was New York's terrible
Triangle Shirtwaist fire where 145 garment
workers died in 1911 as their ten-story factory
building burned. Many died on fire escapes as
flames billowed up from the windows below them.
Fire escapes melted and buckled, dropping people to
Today's solution is the closed, insulated
stairwell, protected by fire doors that keep smoke
from getting in. That's a still-evolving
technology. But it's one that saved countless lives
before the burning World Trade Center towers
finally collapsed. Indeed, a new development is a
closed stairwell built outside the building itself,
as a kind of enclosed fire escape.
Yet the old iron fire escape remains engraved upon
our minds as a wonderfully durable American icon.
It's where we imagine sitting with a good book,
high above the streets. It's where the gunman
escapes, or gets caught. It seems astonishing that
that's all in my mind. I can't remember
ever having actually climbed on one.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
S. A. Wermiel, No Exit: The Rise and Demise of the
Outside Fire Escape. Technology and Culture,
Vol. 44, No. 2, April 2003, pp 258-284.
An afternoon spent driving about Houston looking
for a good example of the "familiar" fire escape
yielded this one ghostly remnant -- a short
modified version of one,
and this upside-down platform from a dismantled
American "skeleton" fire escape, which was
being used as a stand at Joshua's Native Plants
and Garden Antiques, 502 W. 18th St., Houston:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.