Fire was the terror in early cities: London burned in 1666; much of New York City’s business district burned in 1835 (bankrupting several insurance companies); Chicago would burn in 1872 (affecting several children’s periodicals). Wooden buildings heated and lighted with flame were the problem.

Then, as now, escaping a burning building was of the essence. Thus, “John Smith” and his … fire escape. Was the contraption invented by someone actually named “John Smith”? Who knows. Was the gadget a useful way to escape a fire? Well, thereby hangs a tale …
“The Great Gotham Fire Escape” (from the Williamsburgh Daily Gazette [Brooklyn, New York] 9 February 1850; p. 2)

A few weeks ago, it was announced that some one in the great city, perhaps Mr. John Smith, had invented a machine, by which persons might effect their retreat with great ease, from the upper stories of a building in flames. The scientific reporters of their papers, who, like Captain Bobadil, are acquainted with all the arts and sciences, “by especial instinct,” were allowed to view Mr. John Smith’s machine, and announced, that it was all, which the ingenious inventor said it was, and that it would be exhibited at the City Hall, on a certain day, and how that Mr. Smith would descend from one of the windows, by the aid of his new Fire Escape, thus proving to all the world, the value of the invention.

Well, when the time came, the “sovereigns” mustered by the hundreds, in front of the building. Soon a window in the second story was opened, Mr. John Smith looked out, and bowed to the select assembly, who sent up one [of] those cheers, for which Gotham is famous, a cheer made up of all the notes in the boundless gamut of discordant sounds—a combination of yell, roar, bawl, screech, and howl. Mr. John Smith bowed again, lower than before, and was rewarded by a shout—“Get ready, old covey! go-ahead, we’re in a hurry!”

Mr. Smith threw out part of the apparatus, consisting of a strong rope, which had for its attendant, a much smaller one. The ends of these ropes as they dropped, were seized by a man, who took his station, so as to give the ropes a gentle declivity from the windows to the ground. This was necessary, to prevent a too rapid descent on the part of Mr. John Smith. Well, Mr. Smith fastened his end by looping it on a stout window bar, which was run across the casement on the inside. Now, our reader will remark, that a sailor might easily get out at the window, seize the large rope, and warp himself to the ground in perfect safety.

But all persons, who are in a burning house, are not sailors; and, therefore, there was an addition made to the rope, of a stout canvass bag; which, by means of two iron rings, would travel on it with ease. Now, then, (for we wish to be particular, although our reader is, perhaps, in a most unreasonable hurry,)—now, then, if a man were placed in this bag, at the window, it is plain that the said bag, urged on by his weight, would run to the ground with a speed quite inconvenient, for any person of ordinary moderation. This brings us to explain the mystery of the smaller rope. That rope was passed through a fixed ring, attached to the large rope near its upper end. Now, the man on the ground having made the large rope fast, or having caused it to be held firmly, Mr. Smith might, by holding on the small rope, and slacking away, slowly and safely descend.

We hasten to the experiment. Mr. Smith brought the canvas bag near the window, and attempted to get into it. Now, by some law of Nature, it is much easier to “get the bag,” than it is to get into it. This, Mr. Smith found, to his cost; for, although by standing with one foot in the window, he could place the other foot in the mouth of the bag, with some wriggling and twisting. In fact, the bag seemed to swing in the air, like a thing of life—now turning around, now wagging to and fro, in a most tantalizing manner. Mr. Smith grew nervous, as the crowd occasionally called out, “Look out, Smith, or you’ll not have a whole bone in your hide!” “Hold on there!” Finally, it was demonstrated to the satisfaction of all present, that this Fire Escape was a most admirable invention, if a man could first get into the bag—but “there’s the rub.”

One of Mr. Smith’s friends, took his place, and he did get one leg into the receptacle, he then found that as the other leg was in empty space, that the bagged leg did not outweigh his body and the left leg, to-boot. He held on with a hearty good will, but nearly keeled over, and was obliged to quit his position. Finally, he seized the mouth of the bag, and while dangling and swinging in the air, like a long pendulum, was lowered down the slant-eendicular descent to the ground. This ended the exhibition. Mr. John Smith gathered up his bag and ropes, and departed, leaving the “sovereigns” somewhat wiser, than they were at first.

P.S.—The New York papers have pronounced Mr. Smith an ass. Republics are always ungrateful.

[It’s so easy to be dismissive of true genius …]

[A note: “Captain Bobadil” is a boastful soldier in Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour, a play that probably was more amusing in 1598 than it seems now.]

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