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Image of a five story apartment building with an external fire escape.
The most striking feature of this building in New York City's Bowery neighborhood is its fire escape. Carol Highsmith, 2018

Inventions and Innovations: the Woman who Made Buildings Safer

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This post is by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.

Walk through an older city and you will probably notice tall buildings with prominent fire escapes. Did you know that many of these fire escapes owe their designs and utility to a groundbreaking female inventor named Anna Connelly? In 1877, Connelly introduced key innovations to the fire escape, which became so successful they gave rise to the modern outdoor fire escape as we know it today. Students can gain an appreciation for Connelly’s contributions and immerse themselves in STEM concepts by analyzing related primary sources from the Library of Congress.

Teaching about the evolution of fire safety is a good opportunity to illustrate that science and engineering exist in specific historical contexts. In the late 19th century, the industrial revolution fueled the growth of cities. Many people, including recent immigrants, flocked to urban areas in search of employment, and buildings became taller and more crowded to accommodate the influx of people. As a result, fire safety became more challenging. Many buildings simply used ladders or ropes attached to the sides of buildings as a means of emergency escape, and these were not always effective. Additionally, some buildings were too tall to be reached by firefighters’ ladders. And while a growing number of cities passed ordinances requiring safer buildings, improvements needed to be cost-effective for owners to retrofit existing structures.

Image of people hanging clothes from fire escapes at an apartment bulidng
Tenement dwellers dropping clothes from fire escape for Italians on East side, New York. 1909

Show students the following primary sources, which illustrate a number of fire escape approaches taken in the past. Ask them to compare and contrast the approaches. How does each work and what might have been its advantages and drawbacks? Why do they think the fire escapes referenced the final bullet point ended up more widely used?

As a follow up, invite students to research the contributions of Anna Connelly, who in 1877 first proposed the installation of a railed, fire-proof platform that served as a bridge between adjacent buildings. To use this fire safety method, people would escape the fire upward, then cross the bridge at the roof level before going down the adjacent building. Later, Connelly’s designs changed to a series of metal platforms attached to the side of a single building, connected by a series of ladders. These solutions allowed owners to focus on attaching new structures to the outside of buildings, making them both affordable and effective. In 1877, Connelly became one of the first women to submit a patent to the office in Philadelphia.

Interested students might also research how fire safety has continued to evolve. Do we still build fire escapes such as the ones shown in this blog? What additional methods are used today and why?

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