First things first: Fire trucks aren’t actually all red. In fact, nowadays, they come in a rainbow of colors. Yellow is quite common. Green isn’t that unusual either. You can even find pink and purple fire trucks if you look hard enough. But that doesn’t change the fact that when I ask you to picture a fire truck, you’re picturing a red one. So why is that fire truck red?
It also doesn’t change the fact that almost every movie featuring a fire truck shows a red one. Or that Lego’s fire truck sets are almost all red (for the sake of full disclosure, we found one that was yellow, but that’s an airport fire truck, so does that even count?). Again, why are all these fire trucks red?
Red in the Face
For some reason, the archetypical fire truck is red. In fact, it sounds a little like the start of an overused joke to ask, “Why are fire trucks red?” You might as well ask, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
(Author’s note: It turns out, “Why are fire trucks red?” actually is the start of a joke. If you ask Siri that question, she’ll say: “Because they have eight wheels and four people on them, and four plus eight is 12, and there are 12 inches in a foot, and one foot is a ruler, and Queen Elizabeth was a ruler, and Queen Elizabeth was also a ship, and the ship sailed the seas, and in the seas are fish, and fish have fins, and the Finns fought the Russians, and the Russians are red, and fire trucks are always ‘russian’ around.” Curse that sarcastic robot…)
But in all seriousness, why are those dang things red? Most people assume that it’s because red fire trucks are more visible and easier to avoid. Looking at the data, that seems unlikely, seeing as red fire trucks somehow manage to get into three times as many accidents as their green and yellow counterparts.
Some people claim it’s because red was the cheapest color of paint available in the early days of the fire truck. That seems feasible, right? Well, then how about the other people who claim that early, competing fire fighting companies tried to make their engines as flashy as possible, so they painted their trucks red because it was the most expensive paint available?
Now, neither of those explanations seems particularly likely—plus, there’s next to no historical evidence to back up those claims.
Why are fire trucks red? It seems like a simple enough question, so shouldn’t it have a simple answer? Well, no, not quite. Even in an age where everything seems googleable, some queries need a little more research.
Ye Olde Fire Trucke
For as long as people have built buildings, they’ve been fighting fires. The most common way of doing this was the classic “bucket brigade,” but that was a far cry from the sleek, powerful, red engines we have today. Back in those days, you’d think that at least one person in the long line of people passing buckets to one another would think, “There has to be a better way!” Well, as it turns out, lots of people had that thought.
The first water pumps date back to antiquity, but they were originally carried by hand, so they weren’t exactly “trucks” (no word on whether they were painted red). In the 2nd century BC, a man named Ctesibius invented what’s really considered the first fire pump, but of course this doesn’t fit the bill for a red truck, either. In fact, the real answer behind red fire trucks may lie in one name that came centuries later: Richard Newsham.
Time passed, and countless contraptions were developed to help fight fires, but none of them were really “fire trucks.” The first real step in that direction was Richard Newsham’s 1721 invention. He called it a “fire engine,” and it could spray 380 liters of water every minute. It quickly caught on, due in no small part to the fact that Newsham knew how to market his machine.
Before long, the English Newsham was selling his fire engines to New York City across the pond. These wheeled contraptions, which could be pushed by firefighters or pulled by a horse, were still hand powered, and they had to be continually refilled with water manually or they would run dry very quickly.
Still, they were one of the first sights that people would come to recognize as a “fire truck”—and for no known reason, Newsham decided to paint them bright red, starting a trend that would continue for centuries.
Why Are Fire Trucks Red?
To be frank, nobody can say for sure why people kept on making red fire engines after that. Even when they started being able to draw water from a source like a fire hydrant, finally making the bucket brigade obsolete. Even when we finally figured out the whole “internal combustion engine” thing and firefighters stopped needing to flat out physically run to fires. Through all that, firefighters just stuck with red.
Honestly, there probably isn’t a single answer to the question “Why are fire trucks red.” There’s a good chance that some early fire engine manufacturer, Newsham or otherwise, did decide on red to make their machines more visible. Maybe they simply had some red paint lying around, or maybe they just plain-old liked the color.
As for me, it seems most likely that fire trucks are red because people are unoriginal. They saw the early fire trucks that happened to be red and thought “Seems good to me.” There never really needed to be an official reason. Eventually, enough people making fire trucks copied earlier, red engines, and now everyone just assumes that’s the color they’re supposed to be. Stranger things have happened.
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