A Brief History of the Hydrant

Firefighting existed before the hydrant and the idea of getting the wet stuff onto the red stuff is very old. The inventor of the first device that we'd recognize today as a fire hydrant can't be told, because the hydrant was developed over a period of many years by many people. The first hydrants were used for public water supply from the earliest municipal water systems. They resembled faucets and were at best suited for the bucket brigade method of firefighting. Prior to municipal water systems, there were other means to provide water in the event of a fire.

In the beginning, the original "hydrant" may have been something like this iron cauldron from China

Photo ©2001 Wan-i Yang

Firefighting cauldrons were placed in strategic locations in ancient China and kept filled with water --- at the ready --- in the event of a fire.

In colonial America cisterns were used to store water for early fire fighting purposes, and these continued to be used even after the introduction of the hydrant in many cities. Moreover, as late as 1861, Louisville, Kentucky employed 124 cisterns but no fire hydrants. Cisterns are still used today for firefighting.

Fire cisterns are underground tanks or structures that hold water to be pumped for firefighting use. Here, a huge earthquake resistive fire cistern is being constructed in metro Tokyo as part of a larger plan of fire fighting readiness in this seismically active metropolitan region.

Photo ©2001 Tokyo Fire Department

The Advent of Pressurized Municipal Water Supply

In the photo at left is a shattered section of wooden water main that was dug up in recent years. The hole bored into it is believed to be that of a "fire plug", city of Cincinnati, Ohio, early 1800s.

© 2002 Ed Masminster

The term "fire plug" dates from the time when water mains were made from hollowed out logs. The fire company (usually volunteers) would head out to the fire, dig up the cobbles down to the main, then bore a hole into the main so that the excavation would fill with water which they could draft using their pumper. When finished fighting the fire, they'd seal the main with -- you guessed it -- a "fire plug". The next time there was a fire in the neighborhood, they'd dig up the plug and not have to cut into the main.

According to author Curt Wohleber, writing in The American Heritage of Invention & Technology "After fire destroyed three-quarters of London in 1666, the city installed new mains with predrilled holes and plugs that rose above ground level."... ..."In the 1700s, valves began to replace the simple wood stoppers, and firefighters began carrying portable standpipes -- vertical outlets -- which were inserted into the plugs. This basic configuration is still in wide use in Britain and other European nations."

Cast iron would come to replace wooden water mains, and when cast iron started becoming popular, branched fittings were placed on the mains at intervals, much like today's fire hydrants. These were like underground hydrants which could draw water from the water mains in a crude fashion.

The first post or pillar type hydrant is generally credited to Mr. Frederick Graff Sr., Chief Engineer of the Philadelphia Water Works around the year 1801. It had a combination hose/faucet outlet and was of "wet barrel" design with the valve in the top. It is said that Mr. Graff held the first U.S. patent for a fire hydrant, but this cannot be verified: the patent office burned to the ground in 1836, destroying all the U.S. patent records!

Early Fire Hydrants Often Had Wooden Cases

The illustrations at left are from U.S. Patent #909, which was issued to John M. Jordan of Baltimore Maryland in 1838. As described above, this early form of the fire hydrant was essentially a metal pipe enclosed in a wooden case. There was a valve at the bottom, with an outlet on the side, near the top. Typically, the wooden case was filled with sawdust or manure as insulation to prevent freezing in the winter, but this idea did not work very well. The Jorden patent was for his variation on the drain that allows the water to run out of the riser after each use, in an attempt to prevent freezing. The basic idea is still used today in cold climates.

Cast Iron Hydrants Were Also Developed

In 1802, the first order for cast iron hydrants was placed with cannon maker Foxall & Richards. In 1803, Frederick Graff Sr. introduced an improved version of the fire hydrant with the valve in the lower portion. These were inserted into wooden mains with a tapering joint. In 1811, Philadelphia claimed to have 230 wooden hydrant pumps and 185 cast iron fire hydrants.

In this close-up cropped from a copy of an N. Currier lithograph of 1854 is depicted an early cast iron "flip lid" hydrant at a fire scene in New York City; the operating nut, or in some cases, a wheel, resided under an iron lid atop the hydrant body. This was a carry-over from the wooden cased hydrants which also had lids. Flip lid hydrants were a short lived predecessor of the modern dry barrel hydrant which has it's operating nut exposed.

What is notable about this painting is that it is one of the earliest color images of a fire hydrant, and depicts not the expected "fire hydrant red", but a silver or grey body color.

Regarding the further development of the cast iron hydrant, the R.D. Wood Company's catalog of 1877, gives this account:

"In 1803 Frederick Graff, Sr., designed for the then recently constructed Philadelphia water-works, a stand-pipe intended to remain permanently in position and to be constantly charged with water ".

"This was a most important advance in the design of fire-plugs, since it gave us a hydrant that in mild climates might remain ready for instant use. Its valve was placed at the bottom of the stand-pipe near the level of the top of the main pipe, and it introduced a drip, or waste, that opened by action of a spring as the main valve closed, so that all water remaining above the main valve in the stand-pipe at once drained off, provided the spring was still in order. This model of hydrant, which was admirable in many respects for use in southern cities, was for many years followed generally in the construction of similar apparatus in other of the larger American cities. The nozzles of these hydrants were generally placed about two feet above the ground surface, so that they might be above obstructions of mud, snow and ice, and they were generally housed by a covering box of iron or wood, that was removable to afford access to the valve-rod key ".

"...The necessity, on account of above faults in principles of construction, of packing and covering hydrants in winter with manure, tanbark, straw, &c., as practiced in many cities, to lessen the liability of freezing". Such was the hydrant, varying but slightly as made by different manufacturers, in general use throughout the United States, when the "Mathew's Hydrant" was first introduced."

The Mathews Improved model described above was patented in 1858. Examples of this model from the late 1800s are occasionally still found in service.

As late as 1869, the City of Buffalo, NY was still installing wooden case hydrants, according to the first annual report of their public waterworks. But by this time the days of the wooden case hydrant were over. Indeed, by 1865, Philadelphia had installed cast iron hydrants that were very similar to today's models. Many companies were now making cast iron fire hydrants, and hydrants were deployed in major cities and many smaller ones. Europe, too, was installing such hydrants: Zurich, Switzerland had their first hydrant system in place by 1870. In Asia, the City of Yokohama, Japan, installed their first 131 hydrants in 1887.

Three basic types of hydrants were established for connection to the pressurized municipal water supply: the dry barrel, the wet barrel and the below ground or flush type.

This early example of the dry barrel type hydrant was made by the Union Hydraulic Works in Philadelphia, ca. 1850.

© 2001 Ethan Kennedy

The M. Greenberg's Sons California wet barrel design, Contra Costa Village (Oakland, CA) ca. 1860.

©2001 Willis Lamm

Dry barrel hydrants have their mainvalves below the ground to resist or prevent freezing in the winter. The depth of bury varies depending on the climate. Climates with milder winters have much shorter lower barrels.

© 2001 U.S. Pipe

Wet barrel hydrants have water charged at full pressure in the hydrant barrel at all times. Each outlet has it's own valve, and all of what you see here is above ground. Originally developed in California, wet barrel hydrants are found in warm climates throughout the world.


Predating the wet and dry barrel types is the below ground or flush type hydrant. The outlet, or outlets, reside just below the surface of the ground protected by a cover which is flush with the pavement. Below ground hydrants are equipped either with hose outlets, or a connection for a portable stand pipe; in the latter case the hose outlets are at the top of the stand pipe. Although this type of hydrant is uncommon in the USA, in some parts of the world this is the predominant type.

Pictured at left is an old single outlet belowground hydrant from Scotland, recently removed from service. The petcock is for draining the short barrel after each use for protection from freezing.

Photo © 2002 Stuart Craw

The main challenges of hydrant design --- anti-freezing, hydraulic efficiency, ease of repair --- were all known and dealt with, to varying degrees of success, early on, before 1900. The first steamer or pumper outlet came about around 1860 following the invention of the steam fire engine. Although materials have improved and some of the elements of hydrant design have been refined, the basic form of both the dry barrel and wet barrel hydrants have endured relatively unchanged since the mid 1800s.

For further information, see The Frenchman and the Shipwreck for a history of the California wet barrel hydrant.

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