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Bios for Kids: Joseph Winters

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Joseph Winter saved lives with his invention, the Fire Escape Ladder. Read all about it!

Bios for Kids Joseph Winters

All About Joseph Winters

Joseph Winters was an important Black inventor.

He created the wagon-mounted Fire Escape Ladder, which enabled firefighters to rescue people from fires in tall buildings.

Joseph Winters was also a hero in another way.

He was active in the Underground Railroad, helping enslaved people escape to freedom.

Bios for Kids Joseph Winters

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His Background

Joseph Winters was born in 1816 in Virginia.

His father was a Black man who worked as a brickmaker.

His mother was Shawnee Indian.

Joseph was raised by his grandmother, Betsy Cross, who was known as “Indian Doctor Woman” for her work as an herbalist and healer. 

As a young man, Joseph worked sanding brick molds in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.

Later he moved to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where he helped with the Underground Railroad.

It was there that he had an idea for his invention: the Fire Escape Ladder.

Bios for Kids Joseph Winters

His Famous Invention

In the 1800s, cities were growing taller.

These high buildings made firefighting a challenge.

At that time, horses pulled fire wagons to the scene of a fire.

Once there, the firefighters would unhook the ladders from the sides of the wagon to reach the upper windows. 

As buildings grew in height, these fire ladders needed to be longer.

This created two problems.

First, the ladders were very heavy, so they were difficult for the firefighters to lug into place.

Second, fire wagons had to navigate narrow alleys.

Long fire ladders made turning down these alleys impossible.

Joseph Winters had an idea.

Why not attach the ladders to the top of the wagon?

This would provide stability and extra height.

It also meant no one had to lift the ladder; you could just position the wagon where you wanted it. 

His fire escape ladder unfolded like an accordion, so the tall ladder took up little space on the wagon.

Joseph Winters obtained his U.S. patent for the Fire Escape Ladder in 1878.

The next year he improved his design and got another patent.

In 1882, he designed a fire escape that could attach to the side of a building.

Remembering Joseph Winters

We know a lot about the interesting life of Joseph Winters because he wrote an autobiography.

Not only was he an inventor, but he was also a songwriter, hunter, and fisherman.

He even dabbled in oil drilling for a time (but he only found water, not oil).

Joseph Winters’s invention of the fire ladder was a lifesaver.

Even though he received a lot of praise for his invention, he didn’t make much money from it.

He died in 1916 at the age of 100.

Today a plaque with his name and contributions stands at a fire station in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. 

Bios for Kids Joseph Winters

Famous Inventor Joseph Winters

Inventing was only part of the inspiring, full life of Joseph Winters.

His invention of the fire escape ladder saved countless lives. 

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Works Cited

Bellis, Mary. “How a Black Inventor Improved the Fire Escape Ladder.” ThoughtCo, 22 Aug. 2020,

“Joseph Winters: African American Inventor.” Black History of America,

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