The Historical Narrative of the Standard Temperature–Time Heating Curve for Structures


This review aims to provide additional context to the historical narrative of the development of the standard temperature–time heating curve used for the determination of the fire resistance of structural elements. While historical narratives of the development of the standard temperature–time heating curve exist, there are portions of the timeline with missing contributions and contributions deserving of additional examination. Herein, additional newly available contributions (owing to recent digitization efforts) from the original standard development cycle not distinctly covered by existing historical narratives are introduced and reviewed. Though some engineers have long been recognized for their contributions to the curve’s development, lesser-recognized influences are re-examined. These include contributions to fire resistance testing from Sylvanus Reed, that are acknowledged for the first time in a contemporary light. Practitioners will find discussion from the temperature–time heating curve’s development period that is useful for current philosophical discussions pertaining to the curve’s use for combustible material testing. This study identifies that no currently available historical literature can support the definition of the temperature points which describe the standard temperature–time heating curve. This reinforces contemporary discussion that the heating curve lacks scientific basis in its representation of a real fire.

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  1. 1.

    The Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago, Illinois was the first post-secondary institution in North America to offer courses in fire protection engineering. First offered in 1903, the fire engineering program ran until the 1980s, surviving the merging of the school with the Lewis Institute to form the Illinois Institute of Technology. The program was promoted by insurance companies who were seeking specialists in the new methods for fire prevention [13].

  2. 2.

    Several of the figures herein stem from publicly available digitization’s from the sources discussed. As such, the quality and resolution of the figures is limited to that of the existing digitization. Many of these documents were digitized as a part of a mass digitization process, for instance through HathiTrust or Google Books. In this process, the document owner will scan the document and send to the organization or loan the document to the organization for them to scan. The documents may be scanned using book scanners that feature high quality cameras, with recommendations in place with regards to image quality (though not always strict requirements). Scans may be processed to eliminate noise on the image, and for optical character recognition.

  3. 3.

    Babrauskas and Williamson note historical papers relating to building materials and fire dating back to the 1700s. Contemporary searches can also show literature dating into the 1600s speaking to building material behavior in fire and fire-fighting technologies. These sources however seem not to speak to standardized fire testing of building materials. Some of the earliest calls for fire testing involve the Barrett–Fox composite floor system in in 1854 in RIBA proceedings [18], which resembles a reinforced composite concrete flooring system. The floor was advertised as being fire-proof, however when presented publicly, criticism highlighted that the new material concrete had questionable performance. In the author’s professional experience, when these floors are found in heritage structures, they are found to be unreliable due to the poor quality of the concrete used and often need to be removed. Those in attendance at these historical meetings stated that the debate could only be resolved with testing of these flooring systems. Thomas Thyatt Lewis (1865) presents a comprehensive overview of Victorian era papers on building materials in fire. In his review, he notes the contributions of James Braidwood to the aspect of materials losing strength in fire though little experimental evidence was available to quantify the effects [19, 20].

  4. 4.

    The authors were unable to find any evidence that Hutton contributed directly or that his work was referred to in the defining of the standard temperature–time heating curve.

  5. 5.

    Past historical papers on fire science have experienced these pitfalls. The historical review by Cooper and Steckler provides a factual critique of the standard fire tests origins [36]. They attempt to find the primary source document which rationally explains where the curve comes from. They trace the origins from a secondary reference by a paper by Ryan which claims the fire’s origins are in a paper written by Bieberdorf [33]. Cooper and Steckler were unable to locate the Bieberdorf’s paper to continue the search. That paper was found by the authors in the University of Edinburgh’s BRE fire science library. The paper does not point to the origins of the temperature–time curve—it does not even reference an origin, it does confer upon the statement given by Shoub [37]. The study by Shoub indicates that it "… apparently was based on temperatures found in the various stages of growth of actual fires in buildings using references such as the observed time of fusion of materials of known melting points.” [37]. Both references do not provide a reference for melting points.

  6. 6.

    Today, the ISO 834 fire resistance test is specified to use plate thermometers as opposed to the ASTM E119 that specifies thermocouple. Both instruments govern the test control differently.


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The research herein is inspired through a multitude of research discussions with Dr. Maluk, Dr. Bisby and Dr. Torero and support of all of the lead authors previous university affiliations. The manuscript has been extensively reviewed by members of the York University Fire Group including but not limited to Ben Nicoletta.

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Correspondence to John Gales.

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Gales, J., Chorlton, B. & Jeanneret, C. The Historical Narrative of the Standard Temperature–Time Heating Curve for Structures. Fire Technol 57, 529–558 (2021).

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  • Fire resistance
  • Standard fire test
  • Timber
  • Concrete