The Jan van der Heyden Story

s New York expanded north on Manhattan during the 18th century, it had several models that could influence the evolution of its own firefighting - the Dutch in Amsterdam, the English in London, and the colonists in Boston. The most advanced contemporary system then being organized, developed, and managed was the one in Amsterdam. Amsterdam had the built-in advantage of its canals. They provided ample water to fight fires and were also effective fire-breaks limiting major conflagrations. The other advantage Amsterdam had at the time was an astute, talented, and energetic Fire Chief, Jan van der Heyden.

Van der Heyden was one of the great Dutch artists of their 17th Century Golden Age, which is to say one of the greatest artists of any age. His attention to detail and command of perspective in his cityscapes and landscapes is astonishing, even by Dutch master standards. He was a successful artist and considered art his "regular profession", but his wealth came from inventions, the design and fabrication of high-value products like streetlamps and water pumps. These creations were new, useful, and non-obvious enough to qualify for patents, an opportunity the fastidious van der Heyden did not neglect.

In 1668 Jan proposed a plan to install streetlights to illuminate the entire city of Amsterdam then housing a population of about two hundred thousand. It was an ambitious project, one of the first of its scale and scope in Europe. As would be characteristic of his public works, he engineered several improvements to the essential device, in this case the lamp itself. His novel lamp used mirrors, glass, and thin metal strips to light spaces with the minimum shadow. It was well-vented and included a regulated oil reservoir, which solved the problem of the oil overheating and spilling dangerously out of the lamp. He specified where the twelve-foot lamp-poles should be located, the optimum spacing between the 2,556 lamps, and the details of their supply and maintenance. His analysis of the cost of the system included payments to the lamplighters themselves, who could illuminate the city in fifteen minutes. The city made him the salaried Superintendent of the system, a position he held for over forty years.

At about the same time, Jan and his brother Nicolas, who had studied hydraulics, were also developing waterwheels, pumps, hose, and other devices to move and direct substantial volumes of water. Amsterdam in the 1670s already had one of the more developed fire-fighting systems in Europe with more than sixty German-made fire engines and hundreds of experienced firefighters. They had ample supplies of fire tools including ladders, hooks, axes, and twenty-eight thousand leather water buckets. Nevertheless, the burgomasters of Amsterdam were well-aware of the fires that had overwhelmed their existing system more than once. A massive fire destroyed their Old Town Hall in 1652. The fiery wall of a large merchant building collapsed in 1658 killing five firefighters at the scene and injured several more who died later. In 1672, influenced no doubt by van der Heyden's total-system approach to streetlights, the burgomasters asked Jan and Nicolas to improve the city's firefighting capability.

The engines then deployed, such as Amsterdam's German engines, used two synchronized pumps, metal cylinders with pistons and valves that alternated sucking water into the pump and propelling it out. Although the volume of water could quench most fires, they did not provide a continuous uniform stream. Those desirable features, uniform for efficiency and continuous for effective aim of the stream, waited for the next evolution of the fire engine. In 1664 several Dutch inventors received a patent for adding an air chamber to the path of the water being expelled from the engine that effectively formed a continuous uniform stream of water with improved volume and range.

Although the Van der Heydens were not the first to develop this critical improvement, they took advantage of the development and then added two more enhancements. The first was a pump to get water into the engine through low-pressure hose, eliminating the need for the cumbersome bucket brigade. The second was a high-pressure hose to deliver the water further from the engine itself, allowing firefighters to direct streams directly on the flames inside a building. The use of hose liberated the firefighters from the constraint of the nozzle being attached directly to the engine. They could climb into higher stories of the building ablaze or an adjacent building to get an unobstructed angle to the drench the fire. Van der Heyden's engine itself, although perhaps derivative of earlier designs, was also light-weight and mobile.

With their research into fire engines and hose already at an advanced stage, the van der Heyden brothers recommended and implemented advances in every aspect of firefighting - better equipment, faster response, more effective tactics, training, and coordination. To disseminate their technical and organizational innovations, Jan published a book, A Description of Fire Engines with Water Hoses and the Method of Fighting Fires Now used in Amsterdam, which is regarded by many as the most significant history and description of pre-industrial firefighting.

The book, published in 1690, was a comprehensive view of the deficiencies of the older system and the details of the challenges they had to overcome to solve the major technical problems. It also described how they implemented their innovations in technology and the management of the department into a more efficient, rational, and cost-effective system. Jan's extensive analysis of the financial losses in the city before and after the introduction of their system is enough to make even a modern insurance underwriter giddy. The new system reduced annual losses by fire to about one per cent of the losses under the old system.

In addition to being an important narrative of 17th century firefighting, Jan illustrated the book with the detail and precision of a 17th century Dutch master, which of course he was. He rendered the equipment, new and old, the techniques, and the results of fires in dazzling perspective. For example, in one of the two dozen illustrations, Jan showed how the new engines with high pressure hose allowed firemen to get streams of water directly on the interior blazes in several stories of a large building. He contrasted that tactic to the streams from an older engine that could only stream on the exterior of the building from the ground. (See Appendix #10 for illustration.)

Illustration 10: Van der Heyden - New vs. Old Engine Techniques

As with the streetlamp system, Jan and his brother Nicolas improved the crucial device of the system - the fire engine itself. The two-cylinder engine with air compression uniquely drew its supply of water from a low-pressure hose and delivered it through a high-pressure hose. Perhaps the major innovation in that delivery system was the manufacture, use, and maintenance of a practical high-pressure hose. It would be over a hundred years before anyone, anywhere could duplicate the functionality of this hose. As if to remind their competitors that they were not developing this technology "pro bono", the van der Heyden's kept the hose and engine innovations a trade secret, 0stensibly to ensure the quality of their design when put into use. This effective monopoly allowed them to be the sole supplier of Amsterdam's seventy engines and thousands of feet of hose. They also sold the systems to other Dutch and northern European cities.

As with the streetlamp system, they also reorganized the fire department. Its sixty districts each had a company of two Fire Chiefs and thirty-six firefighters. Depending on the location of the fire, only six designated companies would respond unless directed by the Fire Master General, who not surprisingly for many years was Jan himself and later his son. The firefighters were members of guilds traditionally called upon to provide this service, inland sailors, peat and beer carriers, which the van der Heydens supplemented with members of construction guilds who could skillfully scale and fight fires in tall buildings.

There is no doubt that New York firefighting could have benefitted from the van der Heydens' technologies, techniques, and organization. Unfortunately, by the time the Dutch had developed their new system and demonstrated its efficacy, their direct influence in New York had waned. They had returned New York to the English in 1674 at the end of the Third Anglo-Dutch War. By 1690, the year van der Heydens' book on their new system was published, there had been several regime changes both in Britain and in its province of New York. The irony, of course, was that then sharing the English throne with his wife, Mary, the daughter of the deposed James II, was William III, the leader of the Dutch Republic.

William himself did bring several van der Heyden engines to Britain. In addition, a British importer of the engines promoted them in a well-documented demonstration of their capabilities in the large square in front of the London Stock Exchange in 1697. The Royal Navy also adopted the smaller light-weight engines for use on their ships for firefighting and to wet down sails to catch a breeze more effectively. But, without widespread adoption in London itself, Dutch technological and organizational innovations disseminating to New York was much less likely. And, by the 1690s and first decades of the 1700s, there were several British manufacturers of engines of comparable sophistication, including such advanced features as the two-cylinder pump and air chamber. The best-known of these were Richard Keeling and Richard Newsham.