If you live in an apartment in a city, you most likely have a fire escape attached to your building. I live on the top floor of my building, so in the event of a fire there’s a good chance I’d have to rely on the fire escape to get out. But what happens if I can’t reach it? (Which is likely because it’s located all the way in the back of the apartment in a roommate’s bedroom). I’d have a better chance of getting out through the windows in the front of the apartment, as long as I could find a safe way down. Back in 1885, the New York City Fire Department decided to test a number of devices that would shoot a wire to a window or roof of a building in order to attach a lifeline that could used to rescue those trapped inside and help them safely to the ground.

While buildings in the 19th century were equipped with fire escapes, this article from the May 23, 1885, issue of Scientific American shows the concern over their reliability. "Permanent fire escapes, while admirably answering the purpose, cannot be placed upon every building in a great city, neither can they be located so as to be within access of all the windows…People will not, and cannot be compelled to keep private fire escapes—mainly ropes or chains and flexible ladders and tubes—within easy reach. They know the advantage of having a rope handy incase of fire, but they do not feel the necessity, since they have never been taught by actual experience…" In some cases, the fire department was able to use extension ladders. However, they were often “impracticable” because of the telegraph wires that prevented them from getting sufficiently close. Therefore, the fire department began looking for alternative methods of reaching the buildings and discovered that throwing a cord or line over a roof or to a window with a lifeline attached proved a good means of rescue.

Cover-testing fire rescue devices

Several devices were tested out at the foot of the Palisades to find "an apparatus which will, without fail, raise a small cord to the roof of the highest building in this city, and if it will carry a line into any particular window, so much the better."

The first device shown is a rocket launching apparatus designed by Mr. Benjamin F. Morris of Hook & Ladder Co. 15. It is equipped with a brass barrel 3 ½ feet long and is mounted on a tripod that can easily be adjusted to launch at any elevation. To fire it, a cap placed at the middle of the barrel is lit.

rocket launching device

The second is a rifle shown by Mr. R. MacDonald of 109 Liberty Street. The gun fires missile-like projectiles that are shaped like winged darts.


The next image shows an air gun designed by Mr. Otto Regl of the Fire Department Repair Shops. The upper portion of the gun has a pressure gauge that indicates up to 300 pounds while the lower portion houses the compressed air. A barrel is screwed into the top of the gun and shoots out rods with cords attached. The 300 pounds of air can shoot up to three shots.

air gun

Last, another rocket launcher is demonstrated by Mr. Francis J. Gray of Engine House 18. A trough placed between two inverted conical shaped cord holders houses the rocket. This part of the device is supported by two standards that allow the housing to pivot and reach a desired elevation.


All of the devices shown successfully deployed rescue lines of 200 to 700 feet up the cliff faces and were going to go through further testing to ensure their reliability before being put to use. Nowadays, fire departments use aerial elevating platforms for rescues from tall buildings. I’m interested to know if they still shoot up lifelines to those trapped up high and how their methods have adapted to the towering skyscrapers we have in cities today. Any ideas?