The light of a burning torch leading the way through the dark, a hearty meal stewing on a hearth, stories told around glowing embers and flying sparks – fire is one of the bases of human life. Used by almost every human on Earth, it has throughout time provided a source of warmth, the means to cook food, protection from predators, a way of making new tools and weapons, played a role in various religions, rituals, and ceremonies, and been a crucial component of energy production. Without fire, human evolution would not have been possible in the way we know it.
The first evidence of fire being used in a controlled way dates back at least one million years and is linked to our distant Homo Erectus ancestors in Africa. It is assumed that they were inspired by naturally occurring flames from forest fires and lightning strikes. Realising that the heat they produced could be utilised, they began to look for ways to start their own.
The Science Museum Group houses one of the world’s largest collections of fire-making tools, which illustrates a great variety of techniques and ingenuity. Most objects used to be part of a private museum within the Bryant and May match-making factory’s offices and were acquired by the ornithologist and fire-making enthusiast Edward Bidwell. Bidwell collected between the late 19th- and early 20th century - the height of Britain's colonial power. Tracing the legitimacy of purchases or provenance is therefore difficult and part of a long and problematic tradition of colonial exploitation.
The Science Of Fire
Fire is created by increasing the temperature of tinder, which combusts, creates an ember, and then heats up other material, called kindling, until it starts to burn as a flame. Tinder is a fine material with the ability to combust quickly. How quickly, depends on its autoignition temperature, meaning the lowest temperature something needs to combust only through heat rather than an external source like a spark or a flame. This is influenced by how moist or dense a material is. Depending on region and the fire-making tool that is used, easily combustible tinder includes natural materials like amadou made from fungus, wood or bark shavings, dried leaves, grass, pine needles, and other plant fibres, as well as artificial materials like paper strips, steel wool, char cloth, or petroleum.
Humans have throughout history used different fire-making techniques and tools. These generally fall into one off the following categories: percussion, friction, compression of air, chemical, solar, and electrical. When exactly each method originated is unclear - most have ancient roots and have simultaneously been used all over the world in different regions, cultures, and times. While some of them lost common popularity with the invention of the friction match, they have not disappeared and are often still used in the same or similar ways.
Science of Fire images
One of the oldest and most widespread methods of fire-making is by using tinder, flint, and steel. Even ‘Ötzi’, the natural mummy of a man who lived 5300 years ago in the Ötztal Alps in Austria, was found with flint, iron pyrites, and a collection of different plants for tinder.
Striking a sharp-edged flint or hard stone, such as quartzite, chert, or chalcedony, against a fire striker of mineral or fire-steel, causes hot, oxidising metal particles to split off the fire striker and ignite tinder.
Fire-steels were invented with the ability to forge iron in the Iron Age. Found all over the world, they come in different shapes and forms, ranging from simple to elaborate designs. All have one feature in common – they are curved and shaped to fit the human hand. This also applies to the large variety of different boxes, bags, and pouches that are used to store the kits and keep the tinder dry. While some are designed as pocket versions to start fires on the go, others are made for domestic use to light hearths, fireplaces, and candles in the home.
An example of a pocket kit is this box from the West Indies, made from the shells of two half-gourds and containing tinder of the flower stem of an Agave plant. Another is this ‘mechag’ pouch from Tibet. The leather pouches, beautifully decorated and featuring a striking plate, are mostly known under their colonial British term ‘chuckmuck’, worn on a belt, and found across North Asia, China, and Japan from the 17th century onwards. This intricately carved object from Norway on the other hand is a domestic tinder box. It is designed to be hung on the wall of a hearth and was a common feature of households until the mid-19th century. While most of them were made of wood or tin, wealthier homes tended to own boxes made of brass or silver.
A more expensive alternative to the tinderbox, which was mostly found in European upper- and middle-class homes, is the tinder pistol. It has a flintlock mechanism, which was commonly used in rifles and pistols, and works by pulling a trigger that strikes a steel frizzen and creates a spark igniting tinder. There are even very convenient models that combine one with an alarm clock . When the alarm goes off, the trigger is released and a candle is lit!
The most popular fire-making tools today are lighters. Lighters consist of a canister filled with a flammable liquid or compressed gas acting as tinder, as well as a mechanism to light it. In 1903, this mode of ignition was revolutionised when the Austrian scientist Carl Auer von Welsbach discovered ferrocerium – an alloy creating a huge spark when being scratched. Based on this, several companies began to develop different types of lighters, ranging from Ronson’s ‘Pist-O-Liter’ to wind-proof Zippo’s and contemporary disposable models. While at first using the hydrocarbon mixture Naphtha as fuel, most lighters produced from the 1950s onwards run on the more controllable and odourless butane.
Rather than quickly striking two objects together and producing oxidising metal particles, friction methods work through grinding solid combustible materials against each other or a hard surface, until their temperature is increased, and an ember is produced. Tinder is usually placed where the two tools touch.
Friction methods are presumed to have originated around the same time as percussion methods. While the principle is roughly the same across the world, the techniques and tools vary and range from drilling to ploughing and sawing. Some, like this model used by Sambaa people in north-eastern Tanzania, consist of a slender twig which is twisted in the drill-pit of a hearth using hands or feet. Others, like this fire-drill from Inuit in Port Clarence, Alaska, are held between the teeth and operated with a thong. All techniques require great skill, fitness, and knowledge of environmental conditions.
Compression of air
Invented in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, fire pistons or syringes work by the compression of air. When exactly this method originated is unclear, but it is also assumed to be prehistoric. Fire pistons consist of a hollow cylinder made of wood, bamboo, animal horns, antlers, or metal. Tinder is placed in the tube and a piston with an airtight seal is rapidly pushed into it. The air inside the cylinder is compressed and the pressure and temperature are increased until the tinder combusts. The same principle is used in a diesel engine to ignite fuel in a cylinder. Its inventor Rudolf Diesel got the idea for his design from observing the use of a Southeast Asian fire piston.
This model is from the Philippines and made of black horn and wood. It was collected by John Whitehead, a British naturalist and explorer, who in the late 19th-century gathered natural history specimens to bring back to the British Empire. Fire pistons were patented in France and England in 1807. They are said to have developed independently and not based on their predecessors from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, but this is heavily debated.
Exothermal chemical reactions, meaning chemical reactions which release energy into their surroundings, can produce heat strong enough to set tinder on fire. An example of this are Döbereiner's Lamps, which were one of the first ever lighters to be invented. Developed by German chemist Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner in 1823, they function based on chemical reactions between zinc, sulfuric acid, hydrogen gas, and platinum, rather than through percussion like lighters today. They were extremely popular and in the 1820’s, more than 20,000 items were sold in Germany and Great Britain. Being heavy and dangerous, their popularity was short-lived and ended when the first phosphorus matches were sold in 1827.
Matches are arguably the most revolutionary change in the development of fire-making methods. Early examples originated in China around 577 AD and consisted of small sticks of pinewood coated in sulphur. These, however, were not self-igniting and had to be lit by an external source. For a long time, inventors experimented with different mixtures of self-igniting chemical substances. While many indeed created explosions, none of them were able to safely transfer flames onto slow-burning material like wood. This changed when British pharmacist John Walker invented the first successful friction match in 1826. Coated with sulfur and tipped with a mixture of antimony sulfide, chlorate of potash, and gum, it was ignited by being drawn over a strip of sandpaper. With flaming balls sometimes falling off the matches, they were deemed as dangerous, and Walker never patented his invention. A few years after an improved version called ‘lucifer’ matches came on the market, but the biggest change happened with the French chemist Charles Sauria replacing the antimony sulfide with white phosphorus in 1830. Match-making became a popular business and one of the leading producers was Bryant and May, a company based in Bow, East London. Like most factory work, making matches was a tedious and poorly paid task mostly carried out by women and children from the poverty-stricken surrounding areas. The work was particularly dangerous. The poisonous white phosphorus caused a condition called ‘phossy jaw’, which destroyed the bones of the jaw, could lead to brain damage, and was often fatal.
In 1888, the poor working conditions at Bryant and May triggered landmark industrial action known as the ‘Matchgirl Strikes’. Around 1.400 strikers, mostly women and teenage girls, walked out of the factory, leading to the growth of a new trade unionism and shifts in the British Labour movement. While the company agreed to implement small changes towards a better working environment, it took more than ten years for them to stop using white phosphorus.
Bryant and May
The dangers of white phosphorus, which were known long before the ‘Matchgirls Strikes’, led to the development of ‘safety matches’. While matches coated with white phosphorus can be ignited on any kind of surface, ‘safety matches’ only work on specially designed striking surfaces containing red phosphorus. This method was originally pioneered by the Swedish inventor Gustav Erik Pasch in 1844.
As we have explored, the universal need to create a lasting spark has occupied human minds for millennia. This quest did not only lead to ingenious discoveries and inventions, but also changed the society. Ranging from being a crucial survival tool to forming the centre of working-class struggles, objects as small as flint and wooden matches have had an impact far bigger than their size.
- Raw, Louise: ‘Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History’, Continuum, 2011
Great fire of London: How science rebuilt a city
The Great Fire of 1666 brought great tragedy to London, but also new opportunities. Fellows of the Royal Society and other natural philosophers began to influence the look and feel of the city through the rebuilding process.