Taming the Flame

Fire is perhaps the oldest natural phenomenon on the planet. Those dark early formative centuries when the planet was young weren't really dark, because the juvenile earth was likely born from the dying remains of a fiery sun. Before there was life there was fire. Not as we know it though, oxygen didn't exist in significant amounts for the first few million years, so combustion as we know it didn't exist, but it was mighty hot!

Billions of years passed before our hominid ancestors began to walk upright some three and a half million years ago. Their evolutionary advantage over other species was somewhat limited to the daylight hours, and without the benefit of keen night vision they must have been just as much at risk in the dark of night, when prey became predator. Once fire was mastered, the night began to lose its terrors, and when today we share with friends the comfort of a campfire on some remote outback vacation, or even on the resort beach or in the backyard, it isn't hard to visualize a similar sociality all those thousands of years ago. The first ways of utilising fire probably centered around harvesting flame from naturally occurring fires, then keeping it burning by adding wood. Eventually humans learned to start fire themselves, by striking flint stones to get sparks, and by using friction heat from rubbing or turning wooden shapes together.

Fire has it's obvious practical uses - heat and light - but also the very nature of the ancient untameable flame must have seemed god-like to the first thought-enabled hominids. It's no wonder that fire has had religious and ritual significance in nearly all societies round the world. The ability to start a fire and to control its intensity eventually meant that rocks containing lead, iron or copper could be heated, the metal collected and made into tools and weapons. Metal artifacts replaced stone, and enabled more effective hunting. The same control of fire also enabled better cooking and increased the variety of food available.

In Africa, evidence for deliberate exploitation of natural fires may date back as far as 1.5 million years ago.From these early beginnings, humans developed the skills and equipment necessary to make and sustain fire. (Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, 2012)

Our ancient ancestors needed light, but for thousands of years the light of an open flame was the best they could do. But it was adequate, and it wasn't until the eighteenth century industrial revolution in Europe and its imperative need for better lighting in order to extend the length of the working day that engineers and scientists began to seriously look at the technology of light.