Magazine article Whole Earth


Magazine article Whole Earth


Article excerpt

A History of Ignition

Clay pot for transporting hot coals from Kashmir. Before clay, embers were surrounded by leaves and transported in hollow stalks, horns, and special pots of stone or bamboo. The hot coals came from natural burns. Many pots had tiny holes so that when the coals began to die, they could be whirled about or blown upon to keep them alive. A dead pot was a disaster, and the "perpetual fire" rituals had obvious importance.

With the discovery that you could knock big sparks out of pieces of iron pyrite, fire-starting turned to steel and flint. Steel/flint ignition still required tinder, which now included old rags, weathered hemp rope, and specially prepared agaric. The Chinese pouches for tinder (with the flint and steel sewn in) were called chuck mucks. They can be considered the first lighters, as they assembled igniter and tinder into a single package. The tinder box shown is from Europe.

Fire ignited by hard work. Fire drills, bows, and "ploughs" used friction to ignite tinder from hot spots. Pyrite stones produced sparks when knocked together. Animal nests, dung, and dried agaric mushrooms were early favorite tinder to "catch" the spark or burning fire board.

Mid-1660s. Tinder pistols added gunpowder and became the first "lighters." The barrel became the tinder box. An abundance of broken pistols spurred the business.

Matches have a parallel history to lighters. They started with hazardous sulfur-tipped sticks in Roman times, then switched to dangerous white phosphorus (it ignited in the sun and inhalation caused badly disfigured jaws and teeth). After many attempts, a red phosphorus "safety match" was invented in Sweden and took off as a cigarette lighter during the Crimean War of the 1850s. …

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