The inventors of nitrocellulose-based films have long debated who owns the patent for the technology. During their use, a series of tragedies occurred due to film reels made of this material, and today their instability is a problem.
Hannibal Goodwin was born in the United States in 1822, and patented the nitrocellulose film on May 2, 1887. The inventor was a full-time Anglican priest, which gave him the impetus to make the nitrocellulose film: he wanted to create a clean and unbreakable material to provide illustrations for the Bible used in Teaching.
He set up a lab in the attic of his church home and even cut a two-foot-high hole in the roof to get more sunlight for his experiments.
For Goodwin, this double life ended on May 2, 1887, when he abandoned church services and filed his patent for the nitrocellulose film.
However, acceptance of his invention wasn’t easy, because in 1888, George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, made his own movie reel as well. So a lengthy lawsuit began between the two inventors, which ultimately ended in a victory for Goodwin. His patent was accepted in America only after 11 years of litigation.
Hannibal Goodwin (Image: Wikipedia)
Goodwin actually set up his own movie company in 1900, but before the business could begin, the inventor priest died in a car accident on the last day of the year.
Nitrocellulose films had not been used for a long time, and Kodak began searching for a successor after World War I due to the instability and flammability of the technology. Although nitrocellulose had been in use for decades, the company gradually switched to the use of triacetate-bearing films, or safety films, from 1923 onwards.
It was no coincidence that this change in technology, the use of nitrocellulose due to its flammability led to many tragedies. We can easily understand why, if we watch the video below, comparing burning safety, modern nitrocellulose films:
While the first two coils do not burn easily, nitrocellulose becomes prey to fire within seconds.
Until 1933, X-rays were also recorded in nitrocellulose films. This led to the Cleveland tragedy in 1929, when a hospital fire killed 123 people. Many people died here days after the fire because although they were rescued from the fire, the toxic gases produced by the combustion of nitrocellulose were fatal to them.
Once ignited, it was nearly impossible to extinguish nitrocellulose films because, unlike many other flammable materials, nitrocellulose does not need air to continue combustion, and the molecular structure of the material contains sufficient oxygen for combustion.
So, for example, even when submerged in water, it continues to burn, and even if an attempt is made to quench it in this way, more toxic smoke can be generated. A feature of their danger was that file transfer on the London Underground was also banned.
The use of nitrocellulose films in movie theaters also led to a number of tragedies, with 48 people killed to death in Ireland in 1926. In 1929, 69 children died in a cinema fire in Scotland.
Little wonder, then, that strict safety requirements were put in place when using the technology, and although 35 mm film rolls were predominantly nitrocellulose-based until the early 1950s, safety technology based on triacetate was consistently taking over. Of course, there are only a handful of archive records on nitrocellulose rolls today, so if someone works with like this, they have to meet very strict safety requirements.
However, nitrocellulose has another major drawback that continues to cause a headache for professionals today.
Due to the instability of technology, a large percentage of films produced in the early stage of the twentieth century were destroyed.
The remainder must also be carefully stored, as the nitrous gases emitted during membrane decomposition can also damage other recordings stored in the repository. Therefore an important task for each group is to select and isolate nitrocellulose-based ones from the negatives.
Hydrolyzed roll of nitrocellulose (Image: Wikipedia)
Cover photo illustration.