Who Invented the Fire Escape Ladder? (Joseph Winters c1816-1916)

who invented the fire escape ladderThe first specialized escape ladder for firefighters was invented in 1849 by George Huttman and George Kornelio. This ladder was a wooden ladder that was mounted on a wagon. Its intent was to be rolled up under windows by firefighters and deployed to rescue people from high rise buildings.

This invention was later improved upon by Joseph Winters (1878) – a man who led a fascinating life. Winters’ ladder was an improvement on the original design. The key improvements were the use of a metal (rather than wooden) frame and parallel steps.

Winters’ first patent was approved in 1878 for a wagon mounted ladder for firefighters. Then, in 1882, he invented and got a patent for an improved ladder that could be affixed to buildings.

The Life of Joseph Winters (c.1816 – 1916)

The life and times of Joseph Winters has many murky and unclear details. Winters did write an autobiography, but sadly it has now been lost.

Winters was born some time between 1816 to 1830 in Leesburg, Virginia. Unfortunately there are no known birth records for Winters, as African Americans were regularly unrecognized in official records at the time. His mother was a member of the Shawnee Indian tribe. His father, James, worked as a brickmaker building a gun factory for the federal government.

Winters was a remarkable man and important African-American historical figure. Winters’ inventions took place at a time when African-Americans were widely oppressed and their participation in public life was often dismissed. Nonetheless, against the odds he patented several inventions and was an active community member.

Winters was also partially Native American. His father was a descendant of Opechancanough, a chief of the Powhatan Confederacy in modern-day Virgina. His grandmother was an “Indian Doctor” who practiced traditional indigenous herbalism and healing. Joseph was actually raised by his grandmother, so likely learned a great deal about his Native American heritage.

Work and Involvement in Underground Railroad
In his early life, Winters worked with his father at Harpers Ferry as a brickmaker. Around 1940, his family moved to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

In Chambersburg, Winters worked as a farmer and then on the railroad.

He later developed relationships in the Underground Railroad, a group of African American abolitionists who rescued black slaves from the South. He is credited for organizing the 1859 meeting between Frederick Douglass and John Brown, where Douglass unsuccessfully attempted to talk Brown down from his raid of the Harpers Ferry federal arsenal. The raid itself proved unsuccessful.

Winters was also a songwriter. He wrote the song “Ten Days After the Battle of Gettysburg”. The title of the song was also the title of his now lost autobiography. He also failed presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan’s campaign song.

Winters died in 1916 in Chabersburg, Pennsylvania. He was praised while alive for his inventions but did not get rich from them.

Why was the Fire Escape Ladder Invented?

From 1950 onward, cities like Chicago and New York started to build taller and taller buildings. It came to a point where the ladders carried on horse-drawn fire trucks were not long enough to rescue people from higher windows. The ladders couldn’t be built any longer as it would become impracticable to transport them from the fire station to the scene of the fire.

With the need for longer ladder came inventions of ladders that could fold-up and then be deployed at the scene. The first was developed in 1849 by George Huttman and George Kornelio, before improvements were invented by Winters in 1878.

Modern Changes to Fire Rescue Ladders

There are multiple different types and fashions of fire escape ladders. The three main categories are:

  • Vehicle mounted ladders
  • Permanent fire escape stairs
  • Quick drop deploy ladders

Vehicle Mounted Ladders
Fire trucks today often have retractable ladders that more resemble cherry-pickers. They’re usually hydraulic ladders that can be controlled by the truck operator.

Fire Escape Stairs
High rise buildings today are usually also built with fire escape staircases. These can be built both indoors and outdoors – and you can see many of them lining the exterior of high-rise buildings in American skylines.

Quick Deploy Drop Ladders
Lastly, there is the quick deploy fire escape ladders that anyone can buy so they can escape out the window of their multi-story apartment. These ladders are lightweight and can be stored at home ready for deployment in case you are caught with no escape during a fire. 

Commemorations for Joseph Winters

In 2005, Winters’ invention was commemorated in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania by the local fire department.

A historic marker was placed at the Junior Hose and Truck Company #2. It celebrates Winters’ invention and patents as well as his contributions to the Underground Railway. It reads:

“Joseph Winters (c.1816-1916). African American Inventor who secured a U.S. patent for the first fire escape ladder and hose conductor in 1878. In 1879 Winters was issued a second U.S. patent for improvements to the original invention. Winters was active in the Underground Railroad. He resided in Chambersburg.”

Final Thoughts

Winters was a remarkable man whose inventions took place at a time when African Americans were more overtly oppressed than today. While the United States continues to struggle with systemic racism, it’s all the more remarkable that Winters became such a prominent American at a time when black Americans’ citizenship and rights were so actively oppressed.

Fire escape ladders have significantly developed and changed since Winters’ invention, but many may still resemble his original wagon-mounted model.

Winters’ Patents

  • US patent #203,517 Improvement in fire-escape ladders (Approved May 7, 1878).
  • US patent #214,224 Improvement in fire-escape ladders (Approved April 8, 1879).
  • US patent #258186 fire escape (Approved May 16, 1882).