Old Print Article: “The Fire Annihilator,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle (1851)

Not even P.T. Barnum could sell the Fire Annihilator, an early flame extinguisher created by British inventor William Phillips. The Big Top legend invested heavily in the apparatus and announced (with great hoopla, of course) a demonstration in Manhattan to be held on December 17, 1851. Things did not go well.

According to some publications, Barnum’s friend, Signor Blitz, a ventriloquist, bird trainer and magician, complicated matters by mischievously throwing his voice to make it sound like people and livestock were trapped by the fire that had been set for the trial. That may or not be apocryphal. Whatever the cause, the machine failed, and inside of a year the Fire Annihilator factory in London was completely destroyed–by a fire. Because Barnum had often boasted of his ability to fool all of the people all of the time, the ink-stained wretches were not kind about the public failure.

The New York Times panned the Annihilator, and here’s an excerpt from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle story about the doomed demonstration:

Yesterday, in order to satisfy our curiosity in regard to the merits of the so-called Fire Annihilator, we preceded to New York to witness the exhibition trial of the machine, which was announced to take place. In order to avoid accidents, the trial took place so far up town as 63rd street in an unenclosed space of ground, without any houses in the neighborhood. A quantity of pitch was ignited, and two of the machines applied to extinguish the flames. The pitch was spread on a frame of boards about four feet by six, and probably made a coating two or three inches in depth. One of the machines was put in operation, and a stream of white vapor resembling steam issued forth and was directed towards the fire; another similarly charged, was applied to the other side of the fire. A hissing noise followed, but when both of the machines were exhausted the fire was burning as strongly as ever. The performance was repeated several times with similar results.

As the trial was long postponed, and publicly advertised to take place on this occasion, it is to be presumed that everything was so well prepared for testing the capacity of the machine as to give fair proof of its character; and after having witnessed the trial we are forced to say, that we would put infinitely more confidence in a bucket of water, in case of a fire, than in Barnum’s Annihilator.•

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