A Time Capsule of Ambulance Bodies

Frazer joins the ranks of ambulance body builders that extend from the time of Napoleon into the present day. Although the modern ambulance is really an outgrowth of the automotive- and truck- body builders craft, here are a few tidbits of history that might be interesting for understanding the evolution of the ambulance.

Napoleon used a specialized group of men to walk out and retrieve his wounded from the field of battle. The men from the ambulant group would walk onto the field and help or carry the wounded men back to the camp. Eventually, wounded soldiers could be heard calling for the ambulant.

The Crimean War brought the invention of a human-waste removal cart being used as an ambulance. The unit, pulled by horses and fresh from the duty of removing the nights waste product from the camp, would pick up men from the battlefield and also carry the corpses to the burial area. Because the odor and sight was difficult on troop morale, the enclosed body of the ambulance had high sides and boards mounted along the interior wall for the bodies to lay on.

For America, the Civil War presented the first opportunity to have a dedicated horse drawn ambulance body, along with a specially trained group of men to operate the ambulances.

Old photos show that the job of the ambulance and hearse was interchangeable. Early in American history, the same vehicle was used for both purposes. The town undertaker usually served as the "director" of the local ambulance service.

Although it was more common for a doctor to visit the house of the patient in early America, this changed with the development of modern cities. In the major cities, the patients had to be taken to the newly developed hospitals. The undertaker was again called upon to provide the transportation for the patient. As a side business, undertakers sold the furnishings of the deceased people; therefore, the hearse/ambulance also served as a furniture wagon.

Undertakers, and more specifically the early hospitals, soon realized that they needed a horse-drawn body designed to carry the patients with comfort and speed. Thus grew the modern theory of designing and manufacturing ambulance bodies.

The traditional white color of an ambulance had its beginning in the horse-drawn hearse days. Well-equipped funeral parlors in major cities usually had what appeared to be three hearses; but they were actually three elaborately hand-carved bodies that were interchanged upon a wagon or horse-drawn chassis. The black color was used for a senior citizen, the gray color for a middle-aged person, and the white for a very young child. The white color became the preferred choice for the first ambulances.

Crane & Breed of Cincinnati, Ohio, designed one of the first dedicated horse-drawn ambulance bodies in the mid-1800s. The enclosed body was built with shutter-styled vents to bring fresh air into the patient's compartment, and the chassis had a newly developed compound of rubber placed on the wheels to provide a smoother ride for the patient.

Reported in newspapers of the day, the first and earliest motorized ambulances were used by the military in the Spanish-American War. In an odd twist of fate, it was President McKinley that championed their use. In 1901, McKinley was shot by an anarchist. McKinley was taken by motorized ambulance to the Buffalo Temple of Music Hospital in Buffalo, New York.

The ambulance unit he rode in was built by FS Wood of New York, and was actually powered by four sets of batteries that produced a top speed of nine miles per hour. It was the first motorized ambulance ever used in America, and McKinley was the first President ever carried by an ambulance. He died from his wounds eight days later.

In the 1930s, companies such as James Cunningham and Sons of Rochester, New York, built ambulances that had a mounted stretcher as part of the body builders product offering. The body had a stretcher, two attendants seats, rear electrical lighting (prior to this oil lamps were used), and a sink arrangement. In 1942, AJ Miller & Sons built a running-water sink in an ambulance body.

US Steel purchased several of the Cunningham units for the company's new employee hospitals being built at several plant locations.

Superior Body Company of Lima, Ohio, built a multi-patient triage unit for the US Army in 1939. It was a steel and wood modular unit on a 21/2-ton chassis and reported as the largest ambulance of its time.

Oltman-O'Neill built a van-styled ambulance using a Dodge Confectioners Delivery Van. The unit had the accordion-style doors for the driver and attendant, with one stand-up seat for the driver.

The City of Chicago outlined in its 1954 bid specifications that the ambulance must have an oxygen cylinder and a two-way radio. These are the first steps taken by the ambulance body builders to outfit the body with specific medical apparatus.

In 1964, Swab Wagon Company of Elizabethville, Pennsylvania, designed and built the first detachable, aluminum-skin module ambulance. This development was the idea of Martin C. McMahan, Baltimore, Maryland's, Chief of Ambulance Services. Please see Trailer/Body Builders, August 1965, p75.

After the 1960s, ambulance development really seemed to expand at a rapid rate. Development of the ambulance and its interior design picked up speed as hospitals and the military saw the continued need for better equipment. That development eventually turned into the three current styles of ambulances.

* Type I - A modular ambulance compartment that is attached to a cab and chassis, * Type II - A van style of ambulance, * Type III - A cut-a-way style that allows for movement between the cab and the body.

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