Fire Banner

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Photographs of early ‘organised’ fire tests

Recently, while helping to prepare a paper on structural fire testing (origins, where we are, where were going) for the upcoming ICEM15 conference in Portugal (keep an eye on the Edinburgh Research Archive for an open access version in the coming months), I came across this photograph below;

The photograph shows an early structural fire test from 1902. The test involved a floor assembly being installed above the furnace. Heating was from the enclosure below; and measurements would have been made using pyrometers and transit deflection readings from adjacent structures.  The image was found in Stewart, P. Making Buildings safe: Fire Proof Materials and methods of construction. New York Tribune. Part 2 October  1902.                 

This photographed furnace structure was a precursor to the first structural fire testing furnaces used by Ira Woolson that would later be used to help define the standard fire test (ASTM E119). From a historic perspective, the photograph of this test represents an early perspective of the design practice we still rely on today.
            The picture is heavily degraded. In some spare time, I have been looking for a better quality image of this furnace. During this search, I have come across 17 very interesting photographs held at the Denver Public Library in the USA. In their collection were digitally preserved photographs of a series of structural fire tests performed in 1890. With kind permission from the Denver Public Library staff, I would like to share a few of those photographs that they host for this fire blog entry;

From; Report of tests of fireproof arches made in Denver Colorado, for Denver Equitable company, December 1890, held at Denver Public Library under ref X20791 (ZZR710020789) , X20789 (ZZR710020791) respectively.

The Denver tests are frequently considered the first structural fire floor experiments in the United States (I would debate that they were the first attempt at ‘organised’ floor tests in North America, and are certainly not the first efforts globally, but that’s for another discussion). They are however, to my knowledge, the oldest and best preserved experimental structural fire test photographs available. For background, a description of these tests is excerpted from Francis Brannigan’s ‘Building construction for the fire service (1992)’;

“In 1890, the first fire test of a fireproof floor assembly in the United States was conducted for the Denver Equitable Building Company. Hollow tile floors were tested. The test determined that porous hollow tiles set in end construction (tile cells at right angles to beams) were superior to dense tiles set in side construction (tile cells parallel to beams). The floors were subjected to load, shock, fire and water, and continous fire tests (24 hours at 1300ºF)”

The tests had an influence on later endeavours for structural fire testing, and while crude by today’s standards are perhaps just as significant to the origins of the standard fire test as the 1902 tests mentioned above.
            Prints of these 17 photographs (and others) from the Denver Public Library can be obtained on their online website order form. Giving the photographs excellent condition for their age, the staff at the Denver Public Library should be commended for their efforts of preservation of this history, as well as their kindness for sharing them with the fire research community for use in this blog entry. All 17 photographs can be found on their website at;



Guillermo Rein said...

Thanks John for digging this out and sharing it. As you like to say, we need to learn history so mistakes are not repeated (specially important for the History of Engineering = History of Technology+Science). It looks to me like modern fire/furnace tests are pretty much the same as those in 1890... but run on gas instead of coal, the rest remaining mostly the same? That is not encoraging.
I am curious to know more about the pyrometers they use back them? Do you have information of this?

John Adam Gales said...

These researchers for the 1902 test above used a ‘pneumatic’ pyrometer which would have been placed just below the floor system to measure the ‘gas’ temperature. This pyrometer system relied on inserting a platinum tube into a furnace and the effect cooling extracted air would have been used to measure a temperature change. This method wasn’t popular, and the platinum-rhodium thermocouple began to be the tool of choice for temperature measurement in fire tests shortly after these tests. Changes would come to severities and control of the tests with standardization, but yes after that, have largely remained the same afterwards for the last 100 years or so.