A spark, a flint: how fire leapt to life

A spark, a flint: How fire leapt to life
The control of fire
was the first and
perhaps greatest
of humanity’s
steps towards a
To early man, fire
was a divine gift
randomly delivered
in the form of
lightning, forest
fire or burning lava.
Unable to make
flame for
themselves, the
earliest peoples
probabh stored fire
by keeping slow burning logs alight or by
carrying charcoal in pots.
How and where man learnt how to produce
flame at will is unknown. It was probably a
secondary invention, accidentally made
during tool-making operations with wood or
stone. Studies of primitive societies suggest
that the earliest method of making fire was
through friction. European peasants would
insert a wooden drill in a round hole and
rotate it briskly between their palms This
process could be speeded up by wrapping a
cord around the drill and pulling on each end.
The Ancient Greeks used lenses or concave
mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays and
glasses were also
used by Mexican
Aztecs and the
P e r c u s s i o n
methods of firelighting
date back
to Paleolithic times,
when some Stone
Age tool-makers
discovered that
chipping flints
produced sparks.
The technique
became more
efficient after the
discovery of iron,
about 5000 vears
ago In Arctic North America, the Eskimos
produced a slow-burning spark by striking
quartz against iron pyrites, a compound that
contains sulphur. The Chinese lit their fires
by striking porcelain with bamboo. In
Europe, the combination of steel, flint and
tinder remained the main method of firelighting
until the mid 19th century.
Fire-lighting was revolutionised by the
discovery of phosphorus, isolated in 1669
by a German alchemist trying to transmute
silver into gold. Impressed by the element’s
combustibility, several 17th century chemists
used it to manufacture fire-lighting devices,
but the results were dangerously
inflammable. With phosphorus costing the
eqimalent of several hundred pounds per
ounce, the hrst matches were expensive.
The quest for a practical match really began
after 1781 when a group of French chemists
came up with the Phosphoric Candle or
Ethereal Match, a sealed glass tube
containing a twist of paper tipped with
phosphorus. When the tube was broken, air
rushed in, causing the phosphorus to selfcombust.
An even more hazardous device,
popular in America, was the Instantaneous
Light Box — a bottle filled with sulphuric
acid into which splints treated with chemicals
were dipped.
The first matches resembling those used
today were made in 1827 by John Walker,
an English pharmacist who borrowed the
formula from a military rocket-maker called
Congreve. Costing a shilling a box,
Congreves were splints coated with sulphur
and tipped with potassium chlorate. To light
them, the user drew them quickly through
folded glass paper.
Walker never patented his invention, and
three years later it was copied by a Samuel
Jones, who marketed his product as Lucifers.
About the same time, a French chemistry
student called Charles Sauria produced the
first “strike-anywhere” match by substituting
white phosphorus for the potassium chlorate
in the Walker formula. However, since white
phosphorus is a deadly poison, from 1845
match-makers exposed to its fumes
succumbed to necrosis, a disease that eats
away jaw-bones. It wasn’t until 1906 that the
substance was eventually banned.
That was 62 years after a Swedish chemist
called Pasch had discovered non-toxic red