Thursday, May 14, 2009

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 is apparently the temperature at which paper spontaneously catches fire and burns. It was used by Bradbury as the title of his dystopian novel about a society in which reading is illegal.

The concept began life in a series of short stories on the theme of book-burning, including ‘Bright Phoenix’ and ‘Bonfire’, and developed into a 1951 novella ‘The Fireman’, about a municipal employee paid to burn books, before finding final form in Fahrenheit 451.

But Bradbury said that another short story, ‘The Pedestrian’ (1950), was also an important staging-post on the way to Fahrenheit 451. It was based on a real incident. Bradbury and a friend were taking an after-dinner walk when they were stopped and questioned by police. Indignant, Bradbury wrote a story about a future in which policemen arrest pedestrians instead of protecting them; this finds obvious parallels in a story about a future in which firemen start fires instead of stopping them. An evening stroll thus led to a critique of McCarthyist America. Bradbury later said: ‘When the wind is right, a faint odour of kerosene is exhaled from Senator McCarthy.’

This still doesn’t quite explain the title, though. Perhaps Bradbury had been reading a precursor to the Handbook of Physical Testing of Paper By Jens Borch (2001). This states:

The ignition temperature of paper is about 450 degrees C, but it is somewhat dependent upon the paper quality. The ignition temperature is 450 degrees C for rayon fibers, 475 degrees C for cotton, and 550 degrees C for flame-resistant cotton (treated with N-methyl-dimethyl-phosphonopropionamide). From the data published the ignition temperature of paper treated with fire retardants seems to be about 100 degrees C higher than that of an untreated sample.

What seems to have happened is that Bradbury mixed up his Fahrenheit with his Celsius. 450 degrees C is correct for paper – only one off from 451 – but this is Celsius (or Centigrade), not Fahrenheit. The equivalent in Fahrenheit would be about 843 degrees. The famous formulation ‘Fahrenheit 451: The Temperature at which Book Paper Catches Fire, and Burns’, should perhaps be changed: I would suggest something such as: ‘Fahrenheit 843: The Approximate Temperature at which Rayon Fiber Untreated with N-methyl-dimethyl-phosphonopropionamide Catches Fire, and Burns’.

Bradbury, Ray: Match to Flame: The Fictional Paths to Fahrenheit 451 (2006)
Borch, Jens: Handbook of Physical Testing of Paper (2001)

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