Alarm Industry History

A Legacy of Innovation

The electronic security and fire alarm industry’s remarkable history dates back to the mid 1850’s when pioneers led by John Gamewell and Edwin Holmes transformed inventions into businesses that protected property and life as never imagined. Both men owed their good fortune, though, at least in part to scientific advancements dating back as far as the late eighteenth century.

Amateurs Lead the Way

The invention of the battery in 1799 and the telegraph in 1841 profoundly changed the world and together inspired hobbyists, electricians and scientists around the globe to seek ways to improve and expand the science of telecommunication. Shortly after the telegraph’s introduction, a wealthy young doctor named William Channing conceived a large municipal system to transmit fire alarms to fire stations across the city of Boston. Using Samuel Morse’s new telegraph system in conjunction with coded wheel technology, Channing detailed an elaborate plan for signals to be transmitted from municipal fire alarm boxes pinpointing the exact location of a fire. Channing’s plan faced a very practical problem, though: It couldn’t account for how to ring large bells in remote fire stations.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

At about the same time Augustus Pope, a Unitarian minister living just outside of Boston, began working on an electric burglar alarm. He followed Channing’s work with keen interest because he too had a problem ringing bells (albeit much smaller ones) to alert occupants. The solution came from Moses Farmer, a New Hampshire native known nationally for his work as an early electrician, who devised a plan using an electromagnet to open and close a circuit at regular intervals, thus ringing a bell. Farmer’s electromagnet provided the missing link for both Channing and Pope, enabling them to complete and patent their inventions in 1848 and 1853, respectively.

Stamps, Skirts, and Stock Tickers

Within ten years South Carolina postmaster and telegraph agent John Gamewell purchased the right to market Channing’s system in the Southeast, and soon after purchased all the rights to the patent. Meanwhile an entrepreneur named Edwin Holmes bought Pope’s patent and switched from selling notions and hoopskirts to marketing electromagnetic burglar alarms in Boston and then New York.

By 1895 Gamewell controlled 95 percent of the U.S. fire alarm market. At the same time the Holmes Burglar Alarm Company held a stronghold on most major east coast cities and served as the model for security companies for the next one hundred years. Holmes’ success so permeated the communication business of the time that Edwin Holmes served as the first president of the New York Telephone Company, and his Boston central station served as the first telephone central office in the United States.

The central station burglar alarm had sprung up in the early 1870’s using direct wire technology. This permitted the extension of local alarms to a central location where constantly monitored circuits provided banks, stores and even private homes with protection never seen before. Seeing the advantage of central station technology, telegrapher and inventor of the stock ticker Edward Calahan devised in 1875 a plan to place small wind up call boxes at various locations throughout cities allowing a signal to be transmitted to a central office requesting a messenger boy. As an added service, a different code could be dialed to summon help in the event of an emergency. He sold the plan to a group of investors who formed the American District Telegraph (ADT) company.

Progress Continues

The next significant advancement in both burglar and fire alarm transmission came in the early 1880’s when Chauncey McCulloh of Baltimore devised a system allowing multiple subscribers to share a single circuit connected to a central office, reducing the overall cost of such a connection. With McCulloh’s contribution, alarm signal transmission technology remained essentially unchanged for nearly one hundred years.

On the other hand, detection equipment continued to evolve. In the early 1880’s an engineer and locomotive designer named Frederick Grinnell radically enhanced fire security by patenting an improved sprinkler head that would open under extreme heat, thus quenching a potentially deadly fire. Later the development of ionization (smoke) detectors and motion sensors to detect intruders represented further advancements, as did elaborate safe alarms, rate-of-rise heat detectors, and magnetic door and window sensors.

The Internet Generation

Internet technology has revolutionized security systems communications and monitoring capabilities. With the advent of digital communication in the 1970’s, central station signaling finally took a major evolutionary step toward the technology we recognize today. That technology continues to advance, with wireless communications now joined by IP connectivity. In fact the convergence of Internet communications and digital imaging has made live central station video monitoring available to nearly every alarm user. Detection equipment continues to develop as well, with more sophisticated devices and more reliable sensors providing better sensitivity and greater security.

The dreams that spurred on pioneers like Gamewell and Holmes 150 years ago have been more than realized -modern alarm systems are raising levels of security and public safety in ways that even the industry’s visionaries couldn’t have imagined. But every advance, however far from those early concepts, owes a debt to the generations of hobbyists, inventors, and entrepreneurs that worked to bend new discoveries and technologies into systems that protected their neighbors’ livelihoods and lives.