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Who Invented the Fire Department?

Tontines are investment plans where groups of people commit an agreed-upon amount of money to a dividend-sharing fund. When the first member of the group dies, the survivors’ dividends go up accordingly. This goes on until all have died but one. The final survivor gets all the dividends and all of the fund, too. In the early 1900s, there were nine million active tontine policies in the United States. Most of them were sold by insurance companies whose questionable practices, controversies, and scandals led to the banning of tontines in 1906. NPR calls tontines “a morbid mix of retirement plan and lottery.” 

Broadly speaking, insurance is a way to pre-pay for compensation from loss

Insurance companies excel at understanding odds, probabilities, and irrefutable mathematic laws. The people who calculate risk factors and how much to charge for ongoing insurance premiums are called actuarials. They’re numbers whizzes who compile and analyze statistics at levels most of us can’t even comprehend. Those capable of high-level statistical calculations and building ever-more-sophisticated predictive models also find work on Wall Street and in the casino industry. Insurance companies have so much in common with casinos that some say insurance is legalized gambling.

Casinos make lots of money

They understand the odds and the probabilities of events happening in the future. Casinos with top-notch mathematicians tilt the playing field their way to make money day after day. Most people know legalized gambling uses its understanding of probabilities — not luck and hunches — to always win in the long run. Where do you think they get all those millions of dollars they need to pay for all those gambling palaces and all that neon and free drinks and hotel rooms? With money from millions of losers.

Thousands of years ago cargo ships were large wooden boats powered only by the wind

Navigation was imprecise and there were no sure ways of predicting the many dangers sailing ships incurred out on the open sea — storms, unmarked hazards, and pirates. Because it was quite common for ships to lose some of their cargo. The wisest merchants knew not to put all their eggs in one basket. They’d split their freight among several ships to reduce the likelihood of losing everything. In a way, they were insuring themselves.

Who invented insurance?

Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Indians, and the Chinese all had some form of pooling resources to share risks, yet some claim to know enough to credit this invention to a single individual on a single date in a single city. What is likely is that different forms of insurance evolved in many places as a way to pay in advance for protection against losses.

In the early 1600s, the law specified two different types of lost cargo

Flotsam was the term for items accidentally floating in the sea as a consequence of a ship wrecked by storms, tidal waves, and unmarked hazard. Jetsam refers to cargo deliberately thrown overboard to right the ship or lighten it enough to save it from sinking.

Rarely did ship captains have to throw all the cargo overboard

Shrewd merchants would pay the captain to insure that their goods would be the last to be jettisoned in event of a disaster. When your goods are the last to be thrown over the side, they’re safe in all but the most disastrous events. 

Taking the lessons they learned from insuring ships and cargo, insurance companies expanded their services, offering insurance for homes, autos, properties, illnesses, accidents and injuries, unemployment, lives, and fire, too. 

Trigger events are occurrences that precipitate other events

It is generally agreed that the Great Fire of London in 1666 changed people’s minds about property insurance, especially because most buildings back then were made of wood and cooking and heating were provided by open fires. Firefighting was little more than throwing a bucket of water on the flames. The London Fire Brigade says 13,000 dwellings were destroyed in that single fire.

It wasn’t until the 1880s that most large cities had municipal fire departments of their own

Prior to that, insurance companies hired their own teams of firefighters to protect the buildings they insured. If you were willing to pay the fee, your home or place of business got priority protection in case of a fire.

Priority One houses were easily identified from the street by signs on the building

Company firefighters recognized the sign proclaiming this building as an insured property. When insurance companies paid cash bonuses to those who put out fires before the building was destroyed, independent, for-profit fire brigades popped up, rushing to be the first to disasters and earn the bonuses.

Who benefitted from competent and responsive fire protection?

Property owners, of course, but so did the insurance companies. The quicker the firefighters got to the scene, the quicker the fire got put out. Less damage was caused and the insurance company reduced its expenses.

According to fireheritageusa.com, Benjamin Franklin’s fire company was formed primarily for the security of its members’ properties. Where other Boston fire companies protected only their clients’ properties, Franklin’s firefighters were pledged to help the entire community.


As the Industrial Age mechanized America in the late 1800s and early 1900s, municipal fire departments replaced their horses* with fire engines. One special type of fire engine stands out from the rest.

Big-city buildings got taller and taller and firefighters needed longer and longer ladders to reach the upper floors. Longer ladders meant longer trucks that would be too big for narrow streets, especially at corners. A new type of fire truck was designed in such a way that allowed it to turn the sharp corners of the city more easily.

Most of us call them hook-and-ladders, but firefighters call them tiller trucks

They’re as big as tractor-trailers on the highways, but with big ladders on top and a tillerman sitting behind the rear axle in a seat high enough for him to see the road ahead. When the driver at the front of the tiller truck steered left make a left turn (just as we do in our cars), the tillerman** at the back steered to the right to make the back end swing wide. This counterintutive action allowed the truck to make turns too sharp for traditional fire trucks, get into smaller places, and carry more gear.

They’re called tiller trucks because you push the tiller to the right to make a left turn and to the left to make a right turn.


* The New York Historical Society says there were so many horses in the city in the early 1900s that nearly 500 tons of manure were deposited on the streets every day. City employees dumped it in New Jersey and on Long Island.

** When the fire truck has been parked, it’s the tillerman who scrambles up the ladder first.

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