Brief historical overview of man’s use of fire

Mankind’s use of fire goes back an extraordinary length of time. From humble collecting and guarding natural fires to producing fire by sparks or friction took about 1,5 mio years. Since more than 500,000 years, mankind is producing fires themselves by mentioned methods. And only since about 200 years fire is produced by other mechanical, chemical, or electrical methods.

2,000,000 years ago:

Since when our species has been using the power and might of fire is debatable. One thing is certain: Homo erectus already guarded natural fires, for example those caused by lightning strikes or volcano outbreaks, in the form of eternal campfires, which also provided light.

500,000 years ago:

Burning fat-pine splints served as the oldest movable artificial light source. It is documented to have been used everywhere north of the equator: from Scandinavia to Siberia, from the Alps to the Himalayas. Torches later developed from these splints.

40,000 years ago:

During the last ice age in Europe the Cro-Magnon people used stone bowls for lighting. In principle, these were the first oil lamps in which wicks burn liquid animal fat (tallow or blubber).

5,000 years ago:

Candles were invented independently in India, Mesopotamia, and China. They were created by dipping a wick made of straw, hemp, reed, or papyrus in tallow – and later also in beeswax – and thus soaked with the fuel. Following illustration shows the variety of possibilities to produce torches and candles.

  • No. 1. Folded palm leaf used as a torch. East Indies.
  • No. 2. Stormy petrel, burned in the Orkney Islands for light
  • No. 3. Candle fish in a split stick, burned for light. Alaska
  • No. 4. Torch made of birch bark. Iroquois Indians
  • No. 5. Torch made of splint fat-pine knots. Virginia
  • No. 6. Torch made of a bundle of slivers of fat pine. Southern Indians
  • No. 7. Torch made of dammar gum wrapped in palm leaves. Malays
  • No. 8. Torch or ” link ” made by soaking rope in resin. ^ Europe in the Middle Ages
  • No. 9. Torch composed of cords soaked in fat or wax. Europe, sixteenth century
  • Nos. 10 and 11. Cord soaked in fat or wax, coiled, for lighting. England,
  • No. 12. Rush soaked in grease, forming a primitive candle. England
  • No. 13. Stick smeared with grease for lighting. Mongolia
  • No. 14. Mass of fat formed upon a stick, around which is wound a wick of fiber. Kashmir, India
  • No. 15. Tallow dip with rush wick, later cotton. Northern Europe.
  • No. 16. Candles formed of wax ; wick of fiber. Japan and North Africa.
  • No. 17. Molded candles. Patent candles of stearin, paraffine, and wax, and decorated candles. 19th century

Source: Walter Hough (1922). Synoptic series of objects in the United States National Museum illustrating the history of inventions. Proceedings of the United States National Museum 60 (2404). 1-47, 56 pl. The picture can be loaded down via this link.

2,000 years ago:

Plinius describes transport and use of fire with Giant Fennel (Ferula communis) stems. Usage of the inner mark of Giant Fennel stems however seems to be much older.

Picture by: Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

200 years ago:

The first lighter was invented 1823 by a German chemist. This started off the era where fire could be reliably created on an instant. And the first successful friction match was invented 1826 by an English chemist. About 25 years later, Safety-friction-matches were invented in Sweden, which – in combination with clever marketing – were dominating the world market thereafter.

120 years ago:

Auer von Welsbach, an Austrian industrialist, invented Ferrocerium metal, which was used as flint steel for creating sparks. And many Bushcrafters and Survivalists nowadays (2023) consider similar flint steels – now called fire-steel rods – as a rustic, old way of creating fires.

100 years ago:

My grandmother, living in a secluded valley in the Alps, still used flint and steel plus tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius) every day for lighting their fireplace in the kitchen.

70 years ago:

Main fuel source for lighters became butane gas – and with that the emergence of throw-away lighters.

Lessons learned from the historical overview of man’s use of fire:

  • Homo erectus already guarded natural fires abt. 2 mio years ago
  • Since more than 500,000 years, mankind is producing fires by sparks or friction
  • Only since the last 200 years, fire is created by other mechanical, chemical, or electrical methods
  • Even 100 years ago, fire was still regularly produced in secluded locations by flint and steel or friction
  • Throw-away lighters are only commonplace since about 70 years back from now