Even though Christmas has now come and gone, a long-forgotten but remarkable story about a South Carolina boy born at Christmas time has recently acquired significant interest, especially within the fire service.  Newly uncovered history reveals that a Methodist minister and his wife, John and Delilah Gamewell, were blessed on Christmas day in 1822 with the birth of a son, John Nelson Gamewell, near the town of Camden.  Young Gamewell was raised in Camden and attended school as did the other children of his day.  However, Gamewell grew up with a more curious mind than most and exhibited an uncommon fascination with gadgets, machines, and a quest to find out just how contraptions worked.

John Nelson Gamewell

From all accounts Gamewell matured to be a brilliant man of influence and benevolence who found great pleasure in serving the Camden community in a number of notable capacities.  Records reveal that he was appointed Camden’s postmaster for a number of years and also served as the town’s telegraph operator.  He was an inventor and entrepreneur who found time to work for the local newspaper as “co-operator” maintaining the printing presses and even filled in occasionally as a contributing editor/reporter.

Working Gamewell Fire Alarm Box & Pedestal Used in City of Greenville Circa Late 1950s-Early 1960s

Only through a diligent search of old newspaper articles from The Camden Weekly Journal did this writer discover that John Nelson Gamewell also served as one of Camden’s firemen and was assigned to the Camden Independent Fire Engine Company for over twenty years.  During Gamewell’s time as a fireman, he was elected to the positions of Secretary and Director of that highly seasoned fire company.  His partiality to the fire company is often exposed when he wrote for the newspaper and provided detailed accounts of many of Camden’s most disastrous and spectacular fires.  His accounts of these fires reflect his knowledge of fire operations, strategies and tactics, ie. relay pumping, ventilation, exposure protection, fire prevention, etc.

Gamewell developed a genuine fascination about the telegraph model invented by Samuel F. Morse in the 1840’s.  This interest propelled him to produce several creative ways to improve the transmission of signals between locations.  After attending a seminar on the Channing & Farmer Fire Alarm System at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., Mr. Gamewell purchased the rights to sell this system in the south and southwest portions of the U. S. in 1855.  He later purchased total rights and patents to the system in 1859 for about $30,000 and devoted a major portion of his business career to its introduction and improvement.  Unfortunately, his focus on perfecting the fire alarm model was cut short when the Civil War broke out in 1861.  He spent the war years in his beloved Camden helping out in the war effort as the superintendent of a gunpowder mill and to be with his family. 

As providence would have it, Gamewell lost his patents to his burgeoning business venture when the U. S. Government confiscated all of his exclusive rights and later sold them at public auction (some writers state they were sold on Camden’s courthouse steps while others say in Washington, D.C.).  Soon after the war ended and penniless, Gamewell moved his family to Hackensack, New Jersey, for a new start when a former employee of Gamewell’s, John Kennard, bought the patents back from the government sale for only $80.00 and returned them to Mr. Gamewell.  Without delay, the former company was reorganized by Gamewell under the new name of “Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph Company.”

By the mid-1870’s, the Gamewell Fire Alarm box system had been installed in over 250 cities across the nation, and, by the early 1880’s over 500 cities had purchased his system.  Among those cities in South Carolina installing Gamewell’s system were Charleston, Columbia, Greenville, Spartanburg, Sumter, Anderson, Newberry, Greenwood, Orangeburg, Hartsville, and, of course, Camden.  At one point, Gamewell held 95% of the market share of alarms nationwide, and some internationally.  Today, Gamewell Fire Alarm Company is part of Honeywell Security & Fire Control Systems.

When John Nelson Gamewell died at age 74 in Hackensack, New Jersey, in 1896, people characterized him as “an exceedingly generous man.”  A Hackensack newspaper said of him, he was “always held in high esteem of his neighbors.”  A street in the New Jersey town, not far from the fire headquarters’ station, is named “Gamewell Street” in his honor.

In man’s efforts to mitigate the threat and destruction from fire, he has pursued many innovations and contrivances to address these perils, all having been advanced to varying levels of success as deterrents and relief of suffering.  The fact remains that John Nelson Gamewell from Camden, South Carolina, facilitated the pioneering of the most successful, reliable, and near-instantaneous fire alarm systems that have protected people, property and holdings worldwide.  The little red boxes observed on street corners and buildings with its logo of a fist holding a clutch of lightning bolts perfected by Mr. Gamewell have since advanced to voice activation systems, mass notification systems, fire alarm control panels found in educational, healthcare, manufacturing, commercial, and industrial applications.    

Repeater device which automatically transmitted fire alarms over all alarm circuits

The City of Camden, the Camden Fire Department, and the State of South Carolina evoke great pride in having as one of its past leaders and fire service pioneers the now famous and munificent John Nelson Gamewell.  His creativity and resourcefulness endures as a principal defense against fire in nearly every community of our nation still today.

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