A fire-tube boiler is a type of boiler in which hot gases from a fire pass through one or (many) more tubes running through a sealed container of water. The heat of the gases is transferred through the walls of the tubes by thermal conduction, heating the water and ultimately creating steam.
The fire-tube boiler developed as the third of the four major historical types of boilers: low-pressure tank or “haystack” boilers, flued boilers with one or two large flues, fire-tube boilers with many small tubes, and high-pressure water-tube boilers. Their advantage over flued boilers with a single large flue is that the many small tubes offer far greater heating surface area for the same overall boiler volume. The general construction is as a tank of water penetrated by tubes that carry the hot flue gases from the fire. The tank is usually cylindrical for the most part—being the strongest practical shape for a pressurized container—and this cylindrical tank may be either horizontal or vertical.
This type of boiler was used on virtually all steam locomotives in the horizontal “locomotive” form. This has a cylindrical barrel containing the fire tubes, but also has an extension at one end to house the “firebox”. This firebox has an open base to provide a large grate area and often extends beyond the cylindrical barrel to form a rectangular or tapered enclosure. The horizontal fire-tube boiler is also typical of marine applications, using the Scotch boiler. Vertical boilers have also been built of the multiple fire-tube type, although these are comparatively rare; most vertical boilers were either flued, or with cross water-tubes.