Physics and Chemistry

Chemical Elements

When was spontaneous combustion first recognized?

Spontaneous combustion is the ignition of materials stored in bulk. This is due to internal heat buildup caused by oxidation (generally a reaction in which electrons are lost, specifically when oxygen is combined with a substance, or when hydrogen is removed from a compound). Because this oxidation heat cannot be dissipated into the surrounding air, the temperature of the material rises until the material reaches its ignition point and bursts into flame.

A Chinese text written before 290C.E. recognized this phenomenon in a description of the ignition of stored oiled cloth. The first Western acknowledgment of spontaneous combustion was by J. P. F. Duhamel in 1757, when he discussed the gigantic conflagration of a stack of oil-soaked canvas sails drying in the July sun. Before spontaneous combustion was recognized, such events were usually blamed on arsonists.


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