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How Did People Make Fire Before Matches?

Updated on May 22, 2009

Fire generated by wood friction sometimes became associated with religious practices, in which it was distinguished from the more efficient method of getting fire from flint and steel. The Brahmins in India, for instance, generated holy fire, using nine different kinds of wood in the ceremony.

The Fire-Drill, Tinder Boxes and Strike-a-Lights were among the many devices of obtaining fire, that prime necessity of human culture, before the invention of matches.

Of devices for getting fire by wood friction, which require skill, patience and even hard work, the commonest is the fire-drill; a hardwood rod is rotated rapidly until it drills a bed for itself on a piece of soft wood, which is known as the 'hearth'. The rotation can be by hand, or by the aid of a bow, in which the thong joining the ends of a bow-shaped piece of wood is passed round the drill in a loop. If the bow is then worked backwards and forwards with a sawing action, the thong rotates the drill. However the rotation is done, the important point is that the hardwood drill should bore into the softwood hearth, producing considerable heat by friction and also a quantity of powdered wood, which at last begins to smoulder if wood and air are sufficiently dry and the operator sufficiently skilled. At the right moment the operator blows on the smouldering heap, adding to the glowing mass small quantities of easily combustible material, such as plant down, which at last breaks into flame.

The same principle applies generally to the fire-saw, in which the hearth, instead of being drilled, is cut by a sawing motion, using a hard split cane or a sharp piece of wood. A less common method is that of the fire-plough, in which the hearth is gouged out by continual rubbing with a ploughing or digging action. One popular misconception is that these methods were to be found only in tropical countries. In fact, the fire bow-drill was the method used by the Eskimos.

A nodule of iron pyrites struck with a sharp flint, or even two such nodules struck together, will give a spark. This is the primitive method preceding the flint and steel, which give a spark which is much hotter, and therefore easier to manage. Many early writers, including Virgil, who, in the Georgics, referred to 'man learning to strike the lurking fire from veins of flint', and Shakespeare, who said, 'The fire in the flint shows not till it be struck', were under the impression that it was from the flint and not the steel that the spark emanated. In fact, the hard cutting edge of the flint slices off a tiny piece from the iron surface, and the energy of the blow can only be dissipated in the form of heat, which is sufficient to raise this tiny piece of iron to incandescence (in time the iron was worn away by the flint).

A lump of pyrites with signs of apparent use was found in excavating the mesolithic site of Star Carr in Yorkshire (7000 BC). These excavations also brought to light bracket fungi of the kind used till recently for making the German tinder or 'amadou', prepared by boiling, drying, and heating the fungi and impregnating them with saltpetre. German tinder was hawked all over Europe, and was commonly sold by druggists. Some of the bracket fungi at Star Carr had been sliced, perhaps for making tinder. A sliced specimen was exhibited at the British Museum. Flint with iron pyrites has also been found among the grave goods in Bronze Age barrows in Great Britain.

Iron, first smelted and worked by the Hittites about 1400 B.C., greatly improved matters; and mankind could now make his fire easily enough with tinders such as dried plant down, dry touchwood, charred rag or amadou.

It is not difficult, with a little practice, to make the spark fall on to the tinder, which can then be made to glow brightly by blowing on it. In the sixteenth century a flint and steel device was first applied to small arms, and the flintlock pistol of the seventeenth century, in which a specially shaped piece of flint was triggered on to a hinged steel flap from which a spark shot on to the gunpowder below, was adapted very quickly for making fire, and may be looked upon as the ancestor of the modern petrol lighter. In the next two centuries tinder pistols became increasingly common and progressively less expensive. Nevertheless, the majority of people had to be satisfied with the ordinary domestic tinderbox, which was simply a container for flint, steel and charred rag tinder. Tinder boxes were most frequently required during the hours of darkness, and quite apart from the frustration caused by damp tinder which would not ignite and the difficulty of performing the operation of dropping the spark on to the tinder in the dark, there was the further problem of actually finding the tinder box itself.

Boswell, the biographer of Dr Johnson, described this vividly in one of his memoirs; the fire had gone out; he could not find the tinder box and he had to sit in the dark until the watchman came round and gave him a light from his lantern. To get the tinder to the glowing stage was relatively easy; to get the actual flame out of it was by no means easy without a sulphur match, which became a common domestic article in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These matches were quite easy to make, since sulphur readily melts into a glutinous mass into which the ends of slivers of wood can be dipped. The work was frequently done in the household, in which the preparation of the tinder was usually the charge of one of the housemaids. She dried cotton rags before the fire and charred them by setting them alight and extinguishing them before they were consumed. In damp climates, such as that of Britain, tinder had to be heated every three days or so, and oftener in wet weather. It was necessary for it to be absolutely dry if it was hoped to coax it into flame from the smouldering stage without the intervention of a sulphur match. Sulphur matches or 'spunks', as they were called, would ignite easily from smouldering tinder and were practically impossible to extinguish until all the sulphur had been burnt away. For this reason only a tiny coating of sulphur on the end of the match was usual. When blowing on the tinder to ignite the sulphur match, the nose was brought so close that it was very easy to inhale enough sulphur dioxide to be unpleasant. Nevertheless these matches were regarded as an indispensable convenience, and their disadvantages were hardly worth consideration.

Tinder boxes were contrived in a wide variety of forms; some domestic tinder boxes were simply crude containers of hardwood, of all shapes and sizes; some, for carrying about on the person, were beautifully finished in costly materials. There were also tinder bags and pouches; North American Indians carried tinder pouches elaborately embroidered with beads. In Tibet, the chuckmuk was a common article of wear for the more important tribesmen. It was usually a decorated skin pouch with the fur outside and with the steel forming the bottom edge of the pouch. The rank of an individual could be guessed with fair accuracy from the value of his chuckmuk, which was carried on a leather strap.

Fire steels, which were known as 'strike-a-lights', were also of many kinds, varying from the simplest types, often made out of an old file, to elaborately decorated examples sometimes clamped in brass ornamental holders. Spanish fire steels were particularly sought after in Europe. The main requirement in a steel was to provide a firm hand-grip which would enable it to be held rigidly for striking by the flint. It was for this reason that many of them were inverted U shape. Some of the more elaborate Eastern types were jewelled, while tinder holders might be made of gold, richly worked. These were the exceptions, but they showed that even the wealthiest of society regarded the possession of the means for making fire as a necessity.

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