For about 3 million years prehistoric man apparently had no means to initiate a fire. Therefore once acquired from nature, maintaining a continuous fire was likely a critically important function for some members of a family, clan, tribe or group. It is assumed that humankind didn’t acquire reliable fire making skills until eons later, somewhere around 7,000 BC. Anthropologist, archeologist and historians broadly categorize mankind’s cultural progressions into partitions (i.e. Old Stone age, Neolithic age, Bronze age, Iron age, Dark age, etc.). Technology in tool making is one of the key indicators determining how a previous culture or civilization is categorized. Advancements in the control of fire’s concentration and increase of its heat were critical prerequisites to tool improvement and therefore also crucial to our cultural evolution. As mentioned in a previous post it took humans about three thousand years to advance from copper to iron smelting temperatures, an increase of about 500° Celsius.
The process of initiating a fire would remain difficult and inconvenient for another 8,800 years. Less than two short centuries ago, before the invention of the phosphorous friction match, “cultured” society’s best fire starting technologies were scarcely improvements upon or less tedious to perform than those used by wild aborigine contemporaries. A review of some of these archaic techniques follows.
Starting from scratch
Early on, the most popular fire starting method seems to have been the fire drill. In this friction method the drill is a shaft of wood spun by hand pressure. Dissimilar woods are primarily chosen, usually a harder wood for the shaft and softer one for the plank. Continued friction causes powder or dust to separate from the softer wood and become heated.
In the image above a base plank is specially prepared with a notch to allow the tiny precious glowing ember of hot dust to fall out onto some tinder. The person blows on the ember, creates a flame, and then adds more tinder and kindling – to make the flame grow. The whole process appears easy enough, but in truth can be a significant chore. With practice however an individual can make the process work in less than 60 seconds. It’s a question experience, technique and good tinder. The world’s record for getting a suitably hot coal with a hand-drill is 4.5 seconds.
Another ancient friction fire starting method is the wood plough. Popular in Polynesian cultures, this method also requires careful selection of woods. The base is usually a small tree trunk or staff of soft wood with a grove worn into it. While the base is held immobile a plow of smaller diameter hardwood is draw back and fourth in the grove. As with the fire drill, friction creates dust which turns into a hot ember, which is then dropped into some tinder. Like the fire drill, the fire plow requires experience and steadily applied pressure to work.
A method of primitive fire starting popular in Indonesia is the “bamboo fire saw”. A short section of dry bamboo is split in half. On one half-section a small notch is started with a knife. The other half-section that is to be used for the sawing can be whittled down in size and one edge should be sharp. In method “A” below, the saw is below the tinder and is held still by the body pressing it against a firm object. The ember is caught in the tinder above. In method “B” below, the position of the saw is reversed and it is held in the hand. The ember falls onto the tinder below.
A popular New Guinea variation of the bamboo fire saw utilizes a thin strand of bamboo or tough local vine as a rope saw. The bamboo plank and tinder beneath are stood upon as the friction is applied.
The bow drill is actually an adaptation of the fire drill / hand drill method. This method is also ancient. Egyptians were using this method while building their pyramids. Most other civilizations that used the bow for archery probably learned to use it as a fire starting tool also. This was the favored method of some American Indian tribes although they did not forget about the hand drill. An archery bow will work for fire starting, but a bow for such a chore does not need to be so big. In fact a small branch about 2 feet long, with a small curvature, is optimum.
The same kind of bottom plank or fireboard incorporated by the fire drill method is used. Other acceptable fireboards are a pair of branches tied together, a branch that has a season split or a chunk of dead and dried tree fungus
The shaft or spindle can be shorter with a bow drill (usually somewhere between 10” and 5”). A thin spindle of about 5/8” to ½” diameter is probably best. Initially pointed for starting a new hole, the spindle thereafter is kept round. A socket of wood or bone knuckle is held in the hand that applies downward pressure in the spindle. Optimally the spindle is braced under the shin, below the knee, where it can be held steady and secure. Since the friction and heat is wanted only at the fireboard end of the shaft, the other end which held by hand will benefit from a socket with lubrication or a hard insert to reduce friction. If the socket is wood then a metal bottle cap or a small concave stone insert will reduce friction while allowing more pressure to be gradually applied. The types of wood used for spindle and fireboard make a big difference. Given the choices at a random location – only experimentation will tell. Yucca and Elm rate highly but Maple and Pine do not.
The Egyptian bow drill used several millennia ago was often a tiny affair. One of its attributes was the fact that the spindle was attached to the string. Extra coils of string were wrapped around the spindle (wrapped both directions from center). This allowed better traction and control over the spindle. The spindle was fastened either by the string passing through a hole in the spindle or by the tying of a simple clove hitch knot. Someone skilled in its use can start a flame within 25 seconds, using a bow drill. The world record in the late 1930’s for getting a flame with a bow drill was 7.5 seconds …
Another old variation of the bow drill is the pump drill. The pump drill would be only slightly more complicated to build than the bow drill. Used correctly, the spindle can be kept in continual motion by the centrifugal force or inertia of the flywheel and rhythmic motion of the pumping hand. Useful friction would only be exerted on the downward stroke however.
Before the 19th century the most advanced means of initiating a fire was with a kit called a tinderbox. The tinderbox, typically made of metal usually contained a sharp piece of flint (rock), a hard piece of steel and tinder. Tinder simply means some type of very combustible material. Tinder can be anything from char cloth (linen or cotton cloth that has been pre-burned in a low oxygen environment) to spider webs, various plant fibers, termite dust, grass, pitch wood, bird’s nest, down, fungus, Spanish tree moss, paper from wasp or hornet’s nest, oakum, cotton balls dipped in Vaseline or lint taken from a clothes dryer. Tinder needs to be dry, fibrous, fluffy, and highly ignitable. Many materials can be masticated and crushed to make them more fibrous. The fancier tinderboxes of the pre-match era often had a c-shaped or horse shoe shaped piece of metal to hold in one hand, while the flint rock was held in the other. When struck together friction ignites tiny shavings of metal, not rock.
In all these afore mentioned fire starting techniques the precious spark or glowing ember must be captured by the tinder and skillfully assisted with extra oxygen to create a flame.
A more modern equivalent to the old flint and steel combination is the Ferrocerium rod. Typically found in cigarette lighter “flints”, wind-up toys that spark or in a welder’s striker; ferrocerium is a man made mix of cerium and iron. This material is usually pushed by a spring, against an abrasive piece of moving steel to create sparks. As with the old flint and steel method, friction ignites tiny shavings of metal. In this situation however the iron in ferrocerium burns, not the harder steel. Cerium’s low temperature pyrophoricity is responsible for the easy sparking. A modern survival kit might contain a single rod of ferrocerium as a fire starter. It’s resilient to damage by water and reliable. Better yet, a survival kit might include a magnesium fire starter. Shavings of magnesium are scraped off into a little pile (already atop paper or other tinder). The sparks are then scratched off the attached ferro-cerium rod, onto the magnesium flakes, which should then burst into flame.
* A little match history
It took humankind at least nine thousand years of trial & error, to progress from hand or bow drills, to fire starters as instantaneous as kitchen matches & butane cigarette lighters. Yet we modern people causally dismiss matches and lighters as being very simple devices.
In 1669 Hamburg Germany, an alchemist was trying to convert some of “life’s essence” into gold. He took some of his own urine, let it rot, then boiled it down to a paste, then cooked it some more—letting the vapors travel through water. What he got was a waxy substance that glowed in the dark (ammonia sodium hydrogen phosphate). Two years later the Irishman physicist Robert Boyle (Boyle’s Law) rubs this newfound phosphorus against some sulfur and creates a flame. Boyle did not exploit his opportunity to invent the friction match. Mankind was to wait another 1.5 centuries before finding an easier way to start a fire.
Along came an English apothecary and chemist in 1827. He invents a functional but impractical match called the “Prometheus”. This was a wood splinter with a potassium chlorate head placed next to a tiny glass bead of sulfuric acid, then rolled in paper. A person used tweezers or a bite with the teeth to break the glass and set off the flame. More importantly, our apothecary later sticks a mixture of starch, gum Arabic, antimony sulfide and potassium chlorate onto a stick and lets it dry. This invention he calls a “Congreve”, named after an officer who had introduced War Rockets to the British arsenal. Large rockets (16’ long) that could rise 9,000 feet in the sky and which sprouted great flames (some were used against Fort McHenry- Baltimore harbor, in the War of 1812). Our English chemist and friction match inventor did sell a few matches but he did not get rich. Another Englishman exploited the commercial market for these matches, and renamed them “Lucifer s”. They became very popular with smokers, but stank. In 1830 a French chemist created a match that did not stink, using white phosphorous which was highly reactive and toxic.
During the next 50 years large match factories were created that mostly exploited the cheap labor of children, young girls and women. “Phossy Jaw” was a famous ailment caused by inhalation of white and yellow phosphorus vapors in the match factories and often led to death. The English “Suffragette Movement” and a defining moment in trade union history started with women striking against conditions and hazards of the match factories, in the Bow district of London.
In 1855 a Swede created the first safety match, using less dangerous red phosphorus and ignitable only on the box. In 1889 the first matchbook matches were invented and were called “flexibles”.
By 1910 the Diamond Match Co. patented the first nonpoisonous match, using sequisulfide of phosphorous. Asked by President Taft to release their patent for the good of mankind, Diamond Match did in 1911. A century later the once common strike anywhere type of kitchen match has become rare in the US today.
More modern “primitive” fire starting methods
Everyone probably knows that by using a magnifying glass, energy from sunlight can be concentrated enough to start a fire. Without a quality lens and the cooperation of good sunlight thought, even this task is easier said than done.
A ray of light passing through the center of a thin lens keeps its original direction. A ray that strikes anywhere else is bent. The amount a light ray is bent increases with its distance from the center of the lens. A magnifying glass is actually a double-convex lens. It can gather the energy from a broad area and concentrate it into a smaller area. The focal point or hot spot is where parallel light rays converge (cross) along the principle axis of the lens.
Dust and scratches or imperfections of the lens will diffract the light and lessen the practicality of this fire starting method. Plastic or toy magnifying lenses generally diffract, diffuse, disperse or scatter so much light that they are useless for starting flames. One is not likely to have or to run across a magnifying lens in an emergency situation. Other types of lenses might be available however, and might be drafted into making an improvised double-convex lens. Glass lenses can be salvaged from eyewear, cameras, binoculars, and telescopes. The first two lens shape a & b in the following image, bends light in a way that’s unbeneficial to fire starting. A pair of lenses with the shape a, back to back however might adequately mimic a double-convex lens. The last two lens shapes e & f are the type normally found in eyeglasses.
A drop of water placed on the back or inside of lens type e or f, will produce a temporary double-convex shape. The surface tension of the water droplet should produce the opposing convex surface. It takes a very steady hand to find the optimum focal point and to hold eyewear and water still; long enough to initiate a flame. Not all eyewear is created equal so the vision prescription will actually be a factor in any success.
Another clever idea for making a fire in an emergency involves the simple clear plastic sandwich “baggie”. One fills the baggie with water, and then twists the contents into a bubble or sphere. With this makeshift double convex lens, one again needs to focus the hot point upon the tinder and hold it steady, long enough for the sun to do its work. A clear chunk of ice might also concentrate solar energy in one spot, long enough to ignite some tinder. The notion however, of starting a fire with anything less than a very good lens is nifty but frequently impractical. Keeping the water from leaking can be difficult as is holding it still for any duration. Even when sunlight is strong and direct an average lens will diffuse the light so much that even the driest tinder will not ignite. This water baggie idea is more fanciful than realistic.
A parabolic mirror or highly polished parabolic surface can also capture heat from the sun. If held at the correct angle to the sun, the surface will concentrate the light into one small spot along the edge of the parabola. For example a person could polish the concave bottom of a beer or soda can to a high sheen, using some steel wool. If steel wool cannot be acquired, perhaps diataneous silica, abrasive leaves from plants in salt marshes or graphite (as in a pencil lead) might work. Graphite is commonly used as a lubricant but it can also perform as a mild abrasive. The polished surface (bottom of can) is then propped up by rocks and pebbles until the sun is caught at a very small spot at the bottom edge of the can. Very small pieces of tinder are then dropped onto the hot spot and should become hot enough to ignite.
Flashlight batteries & steel wool are a handy way to start a fire. For many decades Boy Scout manuals have advocated this trick. One strips a small ribbon of wool to the proper length to reach both positive and negative terminals, and then shorts it out. Two 1.5 volt cells in series provide 3 volts, which is usually enough energy to make the steel wool glow red hot and then ignite. Larger batteries will work also.
Another interesting fire starting method is the ingenious “fire piston”. This device was discovered by Europeans visiting Indonesia in the 1860’s. (* Indonesia incorporates Sumatra, Indo China, the Philippines, Borneo and about 17,508 islands in between). The fire piston is thought to be an ancient device because of its wide distribution. It may have resulted from the development of the blow gun or blow tube. The fire piston works on the same principle as the Diesel engine. A hand sized tube is fitted with a close fitting rod (piston). For a tight seal the rod is fitted with a gasket of string or sinew and packed with animal fat or wax. A small piece of tinder is placed in the dimple of the plunger, the plunger inserted into the tube, and a pump or two of the piston generates enough heat (through pressure) to ignite the tinder. The fire piston requires careful construction and close tolerances, but it is apparently a very reliable device.
Yet another interesting proposal is that of using ammunition from a firearm to build a fire. The notion of dumping ½ of the gunpowder from a cartridge out and stuffing in a bit of rag cloth to replace the bullet is suggested. Ideally the propelled cloth should smolder long enough to ignite tinder (and excess gunpowder). In practice however the cartridge primer usually just ejects the cloth and fails to ignite anything. The process might work for someone under special conditions with the right firearm using a cartridge with the right powder. Pistol cartridges use the fastest, most volatile nitrocellulose powders. Shotgun powders use the equivalent of slower pistol powders. Rifle powders use the largest grained, slowest burning powders of all; and therefore should be the hardest to ignite. Firecracker or ‘flash’ power is faster than black powder and both deflagrate faster than nitrocellulose powders. In any event, gunpowder from any firearm cartridge would compliment other tinder or help start a fire from an ember achieved by other means. Gunpowder can be unpredictable or sometimes troublesome to ignite. Many a fool has probably blackened his face or singed his eyebrows by patently holding a flame to the stuff.
In conclusion it is hoped that the reader will part with a few new notions. Throughout history, fire and its heat have played an extremely significant role in the development of human technology and culture. Refined heat allows us to create sophisticated materials, it extends our lives by allowing us to survive cold weather, it generates our electrical power and kills disease in our food before we eat it. The reader should now be better equipped to initiate a fire in an emergency, possibly using one of several different archaic methods if absolutely necessary. If unpracticed in these primitive skills however, he or she might soon discover that what looks so simple can actually be very difficult.
* Bit of trivia:
It may not be appropriate to call someone a good Boy Scout just because they can start a fire.
– The Boy Scout movement began 1908 in British Isles, and spread to America by 1910. The society attracted urbanite boys and instructors more than countrified counterparts. For a century now, the thirteen different editions of the Boy Scout handbook have traditionally placed more emphasis on controlling fire rather than starting it. Never has skill in fire making been a requirement for scout advancement. In 1911 the only fire related merit badge was for Firemanship, which focused upon extinguishing fires safely and avoiding panic. Today’s equivalent merit badge for Fire Safety differs slightly by including small requirements like that of igniting a camp stove prudently.
– Where modern Scout manuals might have more images and information concerned with outdoor skills, yesteryear’s handbooks were more moralistically toned for building leadership, character and integrity. When examining some of the older editions it would appear that people had a more defined set of ethics than they do today.