Flammable Workhorse

A History of Nitrate Film from the Screen to the Vault

Authored by: Amanda McQueen

The Routledge Companion to Media Technology and Obsolescence

Print publication date:  December  2018
Online publication date:  November  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138216266
eBook ISBN: 9781315442686
Adobe ISBN:


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“This article has been written to remind all concerned that old nitrate motion picture films are dangerous! 1 So declared John M. Calhoun, spokesperson for Eastman Kodak, in 1962, over a decade after cellulose nitrate film had been discontinued. True, nitrate film is highly flammable, and as it burns, it generates oxygen that makes the fire difficult to extinguish and gases that are hazardous to human health. Furthermore, nitrate film’s chemical instability causes it to decompose over time, destroying both the celluloid base and the image-carrying emulsion. Yet for sixty years, nitrate film was the “workhorse” of the professional film industry, circulating the globe in enormous quantities. 2 One of the first semi-synthetic plastics, it offered the transparency, flexibility, and durability the burgeoning cinematic medium required to a degree unmatched by any other contemporary material.

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