- The Suitland, Mayland, Nitrate Film Fire: An Opinion
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 10, Number 3, September 1980
- pp. 38-42
- View Citation
- Additional Information
14.Purrington, p. 56; Captain James A. Tilton, "Logbook," in Old Dartmouth Historical Society. 15.In Sherwood, p. 66; Purrington, pp. 55-56. 16.Elmer Clifton, cablegram to Whaling Film Corporation, April 14. 1922. 17.The bulk ofthese are in the Elmer Clifton Collection, New Public Library Theatre Collection at Lincoln Center. 18."Warm Welcome Given to Gaspe as She Docks at Pier 3," New Bedford Daily Mercury, April 22, 1922. 19.Purrington, p. 55; "Clifton Seeking Cast," New Bedford Daily Mercury. April 26, 1922. 20.Scott O'Dell, Representative photoplays Analyzed (Hollywood. 1924), pp. 382-385; Purrington, p. 57. 2 1 . "News From the Road," Moving Picture World. May 5, 1 923; W. W. Hodkinson, "Down to the Sea in Ships," (Ad vertisement), The Moving Picture World. February 1 0, 1923. THE SUITLAND, MAYLAND, NITRATE FILM FIRE: AN OPINION The above summary opinion was printed in its entirely in the Summer 1980 edition ofTHE JOURNAL OF THE UNIVERSITYFILM ASSOCIATION. By W. H. Utterback Jr. In the past decade, this nation and other nations in the world community have come to appreciate more than ever in the past the fact that motion picture film constitutes a part ofthe national heritage. Concurrent with the increased realization of this basic fact have come greater efforts to preserve the motion pictures ofthe decades past and a deeper understanding of some ofthe problems involved. Until 1951 , motion picture film in this country was of the cellulose nitrate variety. Nitrate film, by the very nature ofits make-up, is subject to high levels of flammability as it deteriorates. Nitrate film has a useful life span of fifty to seventy years, although it can deteriorate in thirty years or less, or can still be usable after a hundred years. Storage factors are the primary determinants ofthe lifespan ofnitrate film. The original purity of the film stock also plays a part in early deterioration. There are five discernible stages in the process ofnitrate film decomposition: (1) discoloration, (2) tackiness, (3) softening, with bubbling and the emission ofred-brown fumes which carry a noxious odor, (4) welding into a solid mass, and (5) degenerating into an acrid brown powder. This 38 decomposition is exothermic (heat producing) in its action and under certain adverse storage conditions, this exothermic reaction can bring nitrate film to its ignition temperature, which is quite low in any case. Nitrate film in relatively good condition has a flashpoint, or ignition temperature, of 300°360°F. as compared, for example, to the flashpoint of ordinary paper, which is 600°-700°F. The flashpoint ofbadly decomposed nitrate film has been reported to be as low as 106 F. Although nitrate film is quite flammable, it is not, in itself, explosive. The explosive property generally associated with nitrate film stems from the fact that the fumes given off in the middle and later stages of decomposition are highly explosive when confined and mixed with adequate oxygen. Confinement ofnitrate film, with excessively high temperature and relative humidity levels speed up the decomposing process. Excessive relative humidity levels ofthe ambient air near nitrate film also aid in converting released gases to an acid state, thus aiding in additional film destruction. Sustained high temperatures, on the order of 1000F., within the storage area holding the nitrate film reduces the heat transferral potential of the exothermic reaction of the nitrate and thus increases the decomposition rate. If the film is aged, or "old" nitrate, and ifthe storage area lacks venting and adequate air exchange, the decomposition rate also increases. Obviously, as all of these factors increase, so does the potential for self-ignition of the nitrate film or ignition from some external source. The simple principle ofmass effect~the storage oflarge quantities ofnitrate film in small vaults—enhances fire danger, as well as allowing for much greater film destruction in the event of a fire. Nitrate film, when ignited, can bum with intense fury and speed and can even bum under water, since it generates its own oxygen in the burning process. The smoke from such a fire is poisonous and generally ofa yellow-orange color. It must be stressed that nitrate film is highly unpredictable in its pattern of decomposition...