Museum of Fire

Edinburgh Fire Museum
Edinburgh Museum of Fire

Last week I had the pleasure to travel back to (my second home) in Edinburgh. On this trip there were several things I never got a chance to do – and with my passion of studying technology history – one which I should have. Top on my list was to visit the Museum of Fire (at the Lothian and Borders Fire Brigade). A fascinating place. I spent three hours there marveling at the old fire engines, preserved fire fighting technology specimens,  as well as hearing the many stories from the volunteer who guided us through the museum.

1830 illustration of fire truck taken from Braidwood's book
1830 illustration of fire pump apparatus as published in James Braidwood’s book.

What I was most drawn to was the preserved engine used by the Edinburgh fire brigade back in 1824 (pictured below and also how it was intended to be utilized to the left). At the museum you hear of fascinating stories how there were four engines color coded to specific regions of Edinburgh (red, yellow, blue and grey). Stories of the great fire of Edinburgh in 1824, and stories of how James Braidwood helped lead and organize one of the world’s first modern fire brigades.

A 1824 Edinburgh Fire Engine
A 1824 Edinburgh Fire Engine

You also learn of the 1911 fire at the Empire Palace Theatre where the rumored egress time of 2.5 minutes is said to originate from. In the glass cabinet next to the 1824 fire engine is the original fire report as produced after the event (you can download and read a version of the book here). All in all, one could spend hours at the museum and learn a nearly 600 year history of fire fighting and technology. If you find yourself in Edinburgh be sure to check out the museum. You may need to pre book a tour though.

Hauntings and the Denver Equitable Building

The Denver fire tests can be considered first attempt at ‘organised’ floor tests in North America, however; their modern legacy are for the building they supported and the ghost stories it tells today
The Denver fire tests can be considered first attempt at ‘organised’ floor tests in North America, however; their modern legacy is also for the building they supported and the ghost stories it tells today.

The Denver Fire tests of 1890 were revolutionary to the practice of fire safety engineering. The tests were performed under direction of architectural firm, Andrews, Jaques and Rantoul. The objective was to compare three allegedly ‘fire-proof’ flooring arch systems which had been proposed for the Denver Equitable Building through a competitive bid process. For the building contract, the Pioneer fire proof construction company had the lowest bid. The Wight Fire proof company bid slightly more. These companies proposed similar structural systems of floor arches of dense fire-clay. Thomas Lee, who bid the highest for the building contract, proposed an arched system of  porous terra-cotta structural system (see the below floor configurations). Lee realized he out bid

Three competing floor arch systems for the Denver Equitable Building
Three competing floor arch systems for the Denver Equitable Building. Lees system differed to the other proposed systems. These differences included: the orientation of the arch; the choice of material; and the configuration of the the tile itself.

his competitors, but also feeling his product much more superior in fire he asked the architects to consider comparative testing of all three proposed flooring systems. The architects and building owner agreed on the provision that all three companies were willing to participate. The three companies agreed to the terms and the architectural firm drafted a testing schedule of: A still load test- increasing until failure of the arch system; shock (impact) loading repeating until failure; Fire and water test alternating until failure; and continuous heating of “high heat” until failure. After testing, the architects came to the conclusion, that although Thomas Lee out bid his competitors his flooring system had out performed those of his competitors in this test series.

Today, we consider these tests revolutionary in the advancement of our fire science field by motivating progress towards organized fire testing of building materials. The building that inspired these tests, the Denver Equitable Building was built shortly after that test series and still stands today.  The building even survived a major fire in the 1930s. However, the occupants of the building have different stories to tell. Stories of a more ‘spookish’ nature. Fittingly for Halloween it is appropriate to share these.

The Denver tests were photographed. In this photo you can see the ghostly camera effect of the man in the black suit. Because images needed time to develop, he inspects the first beam then proceeds to the next; the picture is not done processing so it appears like a ghost is captured in the photo
The Denver tests were photographed. In this photo you can see the ghostly camera effect of the man in the black suit. Photography in the 1800s needed time to develop images. The photo shows the man inspecting the first floor then in the same image you can see he proceeds to the next. The picture though appears like a ghost is captured in the photo.

After publishing earlier on this topic on the Edinburgh Fire Research Blog in 2012, I was alerted to the writings of Kathleen Barlow on the Denver Equitable Building. Kathleen’s article, Spirits and Scandals tells of several ghost stories related to the Denver Equitable Building. She writes of two crimes of passion conducted by two jealous husbands on two separate occasions at the building site. Also recounted are tales how an individual died in the building shortly after constructed, and how a janitor, Andrew Anderson, fell to his death washing windows from the ninth floor. These aren’t the ghost stories though they may explain them. Today, she reports the occupiers of the building occasionally report the smell of aftershave in areas of the building. A person could be sitting there move a few metres and the smell would disappear. Some claim the smell to be from the deceased janitor of the building. Others report that when they speak ill things of the building strange events happen to them and their possessions. And the most spooky of all, stories of figures that resemble people that vanish. Usually when asked who they were and what they were doing in the building, they disappear. Yet one figure did not; a women who entered the building early one morning saw a man in very classical overall garments cleaning the halls. The man looked at her and spoke “you shouldn’t be here so early. Don’t you know the building is haunted.” When she contacted the company responsible for cleaning, they informed her that they had no one working there that morning, and certainly no one fitting the description she provided….

These old buildings have history to tell. Some scientific, some not so. But still interestingly enough for a scare on Halloween.