top of page

Meet the "Da Vinci" of firefighters

Artist, inventor, firefighter. How the almost forgotten designer, Jan van der Heyden, transformed the world of firefighting.

As famous inventors go, the name Jan van der Heyden might not be up there with the likes of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. Yet this little-known artist and engineer from the Netherlands is credited with a device that’s still used all around the world today, and one that has helped to save countless lives: the modern fire hose. In fact, the artist-inventor (a sort of Dutch Da Vinci, if less renowned) is widely regarded as a founding father of modern firefighting, organising brigades as well as coming up with technology that led to the mighty fire engines that serve us in the 21st Century. Not bad at all for someone who lived in the 17th!

Born in 1637 in Gorinchem in southern Holland, van der Heyden is remembered today- if he is remembered at all- chiefly for his work as an artist, odd considering his other achievements. He lived much of his life in Amsterdam during the Dutch Golden Age, an era of painters and draughtsmen that included the more famous likes of Vermeer and Rembrandt van Rijn. He was sought-after as an architectural painter and had many wealthy patrons. But van der Heyden never regarded himself primarily as an artist. Instead, he made most of his living as an inventor. And- thankfully for the world of firefighting- he devoted his considerable talents to the problem of how to fight fires more effectively.

A checklist of van der Heyden’s achievements reveals the impact he had on the history of firefighting: he reorganised brigades throughout the Netherlands to make them more efficient; he wrote and published the first ever firefighting manual; he designed and built a range of new fire pumps; and he was responsible for the spread of that technology around the world through his entrepreneurship, opening factories to mass-produce his inventions.

We’ll look at his achievements more closely in a moment, but to understand why van der Heyden became so fixated with firefighting, and ended up transforming its prospects, it’s necessary to look back to his formative years and to one particular event that left an enduring mark on his psyche.

An early disaster

On July 6th 1652, at the age of 15, van der Heyden witnessed the massive and destructive fire that ripped through Amsterdam’s iconic Old Town Hall. The fire ignited the central tower, lighting it up like a gigantic torch against the night sky. The young Jan stood in the public square watching what he later described as “the first fire we can recall.” His eyewitness account reveals his shock at the fire’s destructive power, so uncontrollable that “money from the exchange was melted into great lumps.”

It was here that the teenage Jan first saw with his own eyes just how primitive and ineffectual the firefighting techniques used by the city still were. The main method remained the ubiquitous ‘bucket brigades’, volunteers running to-and-fro with leather buckets of water filled from Amsterdam’s canals! The brigade’s tools and machinery consisted of little more than ladders, long hooks to pull down burning walls, sail cloths to drape over nearby buildings to protect them from flying sparks, and so-called “fire engines” or pumps, which were, at this time, little more than hulking bathtubs filled by the bucket brigades, with fixed metal nozzles to spray at the fire.

It was all hopelessly ineffectual and, needless to say, not enough to save Amsterdam’s Town Hall. The building was utterly destroyed and van der Heyden never forgot it. He decided there and then that he would devote his energy to improving firefighting: from its organisation to its methods and technology. He began with the technology.

Designing the future of firefighting

It’s perhaps not surprising that Amsterdam should have been the birthplace of modern firefighting machinery. The “Venice of the North” had a ready supply of water for anyone testing out new pumps and engines. Van der Heyden lived along the city’s famous canals which gave him the means to experiment. But the Netherlands of the 17th Century was, in general, a place where radical innovation was encouraged. The same spirit of enquiry and open-mindedness that made the country a commercial and artistic superpower also inspired people like van der Heyden to imagine that better designs were possible for old technology, including fire pumps.

At this time, fire pumps were large, heavy and cumbersome; difficult to transport and slow to set up. They had to be filled with water by hand and were only equipped with a fixed metal spout- not much better than a tap- for spraying at fires. In order to be effective, the pump had to be placed as close as possible to the flames, putting firefighters at enormous risk. The apparatus was so big and clunky that it was often impossible to move along the narrow streets and alleyways of Amsterdam. Pumps could certainly not be taken through tight doorways, along passages or upstairs inside burning buildings.

In 1672 van der Heyden changed all this, and altered the fortunes of firefighters forever, when he unveiled his new “manual fire engine”. The device (designed along with his brother Nicolaes, a hydraulic engineer) was one of the most important advances in the history of firefighting. The apparatus was more lightweight and mobile than its predecessors. But it was the inclusion of a novel new feature, unheard of before, which transformed the way that fires would be fought thereafter: the first ever fire hose!

In fact, the pump included two flexible hoses: one for supply, which utilised a suction pump to extract water from the canals and drive it towards the tank, and a second operated by a pressure pump, which sprayed the water at the fire. These first fire hoses were fashioned from lengths of leather sewn together and were a truly revolutionary advancement. Firstly, they made it possible to transport water over vast distances quickly, up to a thousand feet in fact. Van der Heyden used 50-foot lengths of leather (a length that remains standard for fire hoses today) which could form a chain far more efficient than men handing buckets to each other! Equally important was the fact that a flexible output pipe allowed firefighter- for the first time- to direct their attack, and to get close to the centre of a fire, even if that meant climbing stairs or navigating through a poky house to find the kitchen (where fires most often started).

The “hose fire engine” was patented in 1672 and made its inventor a rich man. He opened a factory to manufacture the design, exporting it to cities across the Netherlands. But the inventor wasn’t finished there…

Educating firefighters

Van der Heyden understood that no amount of new technology would improve firefighting if the people who operated it did not have the skills and organisation to work effectively. Thus, he became just as devoted to educating firefighters and improving the way they were managed, as he was to designing new equipment.

Soon after his “Eureka moment” with the fire hose, van der Heyden was appointed superintendent of Amsterdam’s fire department. He completely reorganised it, dividing the city into districts, each served by its own dedicated brigade that could spring into action in its locality. The volunteers received regular training sessions overseen by van der Heyden himself. This was not only an exercise in learning how to use pumps and hoses; van der Heyden wanted the firefighters to understand how fire itself behaved in order to better protect themselves and the public. There were regular fire drills and practice exercises, training that today seems an obvious part of the job, but was another revolutionary step forward in the 17th Century.

Spreading the word

If all that wasn’t enough, van der Heyden was also responsible for kicking-off another form of firefighter education: the training manual.

In 1690, together with his son, Jan the Younger, he published the snappily titled: “Description of the Newly Discovered and Patented Hose Fire Engine and its Way of Extinguishing Fires”, an illustrated volume considered to be the world’s first ever example of a firefighting manual.

Jan brought his considerable artistic skill to bear on the book, with many of its engravings being the work of van der Heyden himself. The illustrations depict not only the machinery he invented, with instructions on how to use them, but also various major fires that had taken place in Amsterdam.

One of the fires illustrated is the same that inspired Jan’s life in firefighting: the Amsterdam Town Hall fire. His dramatic depiction of the event after so many years suggests the impact the fire had on him. Few could have imagined the revolution in firefighting that would take place as a result of that event. Sadly, very few today remember the man whose work has saved so many lives.

You can read and see more of the first firefighting manual here.

209 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Paul Watson
Paul Watson
Nov 20, 2020

Fantastic work - there's an engraving in the museum of an early fire squirt and I've often wondered who the pioneers of fire fighting were. Now I know one of them. Thanks Patrick.

bottom of page