Joseph Francis Life-Car

As maritime traffic expanded in the early 19th century, especially with the rise in passenger travel, water safety became a top priority for American shipping inventors. This life-car, patented by Joseph Francis in 1845, was one of the most successful life-preserving devices developed at the time. Buoyant and pod-shaped, the metal life-car was used to rescue shipwreck victims when the vessel was foundering near land. While standing on the beach, a person from a lifesaving station used a cannon-like gun to shoot sturdy lines out to the ship, which would then be tied to the ship’s mast. The life-car was attached to, and pulled, along these lines. Up to four people were bolted into the airtight compartment. They laid flat as they were hauled through the rough waters to the safety of the shore.
This life-car was first used on January 12, 1850, to rescue the stranded British bark Ayrshire. The ship, most likely filled with Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine, ran aground on a sand bar off the New Jersey shore at Squan Beach, now known as Manasquan. A blinding snow storm made the ocean too dangerous to launch a surfboat, the usual method of rescue, so local lifesavers decided to launch the newly installed, experimental life-car. Although never tested in an actual emergency, the Francis life-car performed as envisioned.
Out of 166 passengers and 36 crew members on the Ayrshire, only one was lost, perhaps needlessly, in the short journey from ship to shore. A male passenger insisted on riding on top of the life-car while his family inside was hauled to safety. He could not hold on and was washed away by the surf. Over the next three years, this device rescued at least 1,400 people on the New Jersey shore alone, as well as countless amounts of valuable cargo. The original, groundbreaking life-car used in the Ayrshire wreck was donated to the Smithsonian Institution by Joseph Francis in 1885.
Object Name
date made
late 1840s
Life-Car first used to rescue Ayrshire
Life-Car donated to the Smithsonian Institution
Francis, Joseph
Physical Description
metal (overall material)
overall: 2 ft x 9 ft x 3 ft; .6096 m x 2.7432 m x .9144 m
United States: New Jersey
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Engineering, Building, and Architecture
On the Water exhibit
Expansion and Reform
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
On the Water exhibit
On the Water
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of Joseph Francis
Publication title
On the Water online exhibition
Publication URL

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