#TBT From The NFPA Archives: The Case of the Electric Light Bulb Fire - 1938

Blog Post created by jrodowicz Employee on Jul 26, 2018
While combing through some articles from the 1938 NFPA Quarterly, we recently came across a description of a fire incident that reminded us of an old Agatha Christie novel... with a happy ending. 
  • The Setting: a two-family dwelling in Syracuse, NY
  • The Victims: a family of three (husband, wife and baby)
  • The Villain: a 40-watt, 115-volt electric light bulb
At the start of the tale, we learn that the electric light bulb was located in a coat closet on the first floor of a two-family dwelling. The closet was under the stairway and had little to no head room. “The light fixture was on a wooden strip on the side wall about four feet above the floor and was of the porcelain receptacle type with a pull chain.” There were also clothes hooks on the same wooden strip that held the light.
While going about her daily chores, the wife heard her baby cry from the room in which the closet was located. The mother rushed to the aid of her child and discovered smoke coming from the closet. 
She called her husband, who opened the door, tore out the burning clothes and extinguished the fire with nominal damage. The mother said that the light had probably been burning for half or three-quarters of an hour before the fire was discovered. A heavy plush wrap which showed the most damage apparently had been hung over both the bulb and the hook adjoining it, thereby causing sufficient incased heat to melt the sealing compound at the base, permitting it to flow into the lower portion of the bulb, which was in a horizontal position. The compound then vaporized and ignited, generated sufficient temperature to melt the glass… The only other damage was the burned filament. The bulb was not shorted in the base. The charred wood showed the fire had occurred immediately at the light.
side and bottom views of lightbulb that caused a fire in a closet in 1938
The one factor that prevented this incident from becoming a tragedy was the timing. The fire occurred at 1:30PM while the family was home and alert. If it had happened while the family was out or asleep, the results might have been serious for both this family and the people living on the second floor.
For more information regarding this and other moments in fire history, please feel free to reach out to the NFPA Research Library & Archives.
Library staff are available to answer reference questions from members and the general public.