Science lessons for kids at the Chicago History Museum’s City on Fire exhibit

Who started the Great Chicago Fire – Peg Leg Sullivan or Mrs. O’Leary? We can debate it until the cows come home. But one thing we can’t argue with is the science behind the fire. What made Chicago the perfect storm for this disastrous event? The Chicago History Museum‘s City on Fire exhibit gives kids a rare chance to peek behind the curtain and see what role science played in how the fire started, how long it lasted lasted and how it hampered the city’s reconstruction efforts.

Which materials are the most flammable?

From 1861 to 1871, Chicago constructed many new homes and buildings, mostly of wood with flammable tar and shingle roofing materials. Roads and sidewalks were even covered with wooden planks. Also, there were wooden water pipes in the city at the time. In addition to all the wood, the companies used coal, a type of rock that is found underground and can be burned for electricity and heat. People used kerosene, a kind of oil, and lanterns for lighting. All this created a high risk of fire. Near the start of the exhibit, kids can explore the “Will It Burn?” section to see if they can guess which everyday building materials – from straw to coal – are flammable.

Why does fire melt some materials and not others?

As Chicagoans fled the blaze, many abandoned items were caught in the flames. People tried to bury their valuables in hopes of recovering them after the fire, but afterwards most of the items were burned. To make money after the fire, some people started collecting and selling burnt items, such as construction nails and books, as keepsakes. ‘Cause the fire was so hot,

some of these objects turned into unique artifacts as metal and glass objects softened, warped, melted and even fused together. The exhibit features some of these artifacts such as teacups, marbles, and unknown metals. For an interactive experience in the exhibition, children can test their powers of observation to try to guess what the deformed objects (pencils, piggy banks, cookies) were before the fire.

Photo credit: Chicago History Museum

What is the impact of the weather on the fire?

Weather played a big role in how the Great Chicago Fire started and how long it lasted. The summer of 1871 was extremely hot and dry. From early July to the outbreak of the fire in October, less than 3 inches of rain — mostly brief showers — had fallen, leaving Chicago in a massive drought. Moreover, it was exceptionally hot in October 1871 with a maximum of 85 degrees! As the fire burned, the superheated wind sent chunks of the burning city flying through the air, eventually sparking more fires. When it rained on Tuesday morning after the fire, it finally started to die down after 30 hours. Rebuilding Chicago was also a challenge due to cold winter weather and the inability to mix building materials like cement. With exhibit graphics, toddlers can visually explore how weather elements like heat, drought and wind can contribute to fires.

How did the fire spread so quickly?

They don’t call it the Windy City for nothing! On the day of the fire, there were very strong winds. The fire needs oxygen to burn, and the strong winds in the city gave the fire the oxygen it needed to grow. The fire started southwest of downtown and eventually destroyed downtown. Those high winds also helped the single fire spread to eventually become multiple fires, which historians say spread in their own way and then recombined. Winds in the area also made it even more difficult to extinguish the flames. When firefighters tried to douse the fire, the water turned to fog from the wind. In the exhibit’s “Physics of Fire” video, children can learn how a small fire spread to destroy more than half the city – 17,500 buildings within a three and a half mile radius – where at least 300 people were killed and 100,000 were left homeless.

How do technological advances protect us from fires today?

Although the Great Chicago Fire was devastating, the lessons learned and resulting technological advancements protect us from fires today. For example, building codes have changed dramatically – we no longer have wooden sidewalks, and downtown structures are now built with more fire-resistant materials like brick and steel. The City on Fire exhibit takes visitors on a journey to discover what the city was like before the fire, and culminates in a “Fire Safety Today” section where families can explore more changes and innovations in prevention fires and how we can all do our part to stay safe.

For more information on the Great Chicago Fire, visit

About Carlos V. Mitchell

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