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January 27, 2020 53 mins

Mastery of fire was one of humanity’s greatest technological leaps forward, but even the ability to create fire only gets you so far if the flame is not easily generated and/or transferred. Thus, the millennia-spanning quest to create the subtle technology we so easily take for granted: the modern matchstick. Join Robert and Joe for a multi-episode Invention exploration on fire-generation technology.

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:03):
Welcome to Invention, a production of I Heart Radio. Hey
you welcome to Invention. My name is Robert Lamb and
I'm Joe McCormick. So around this time of year especially,
I I really love to get into a little extra
you know, Chinese culture, Chinese history. Uh. And then on

this show, Chinese Invention, and we've covered various topics already
in the show with strong Chinese roots, and I was
thinking maybe this would be the time to discuss gunpowder
and fireworks. But then, as is often the case when
we're researching this show, I started looking up sources, started
reading about the topics, and in the process discovered something

even more exciting, more exciting than fireworks. Yes, and and
I realized it may sound alarming, uh, that it is
more exciting than fireworks, but it is. And it is
the match stick. I thought you were gonna say, like
quantum fireworks. No, no, the common matchstick. And uh. Indeed,
when I told my wife about this topic for the week,

her initial response was just to laugh and say, oh, yeah,
that's way more exciting than fireworks. I'm with you, man,
I think she's wrong, and you're right. Well, here's the
thing I'm not gonna argue that fireworks are not exciting,
because fireworks are tremendous. Everybody loves fireworks, except for those
I guess who are frightened by them and dogs. Dogs
don't love fireworks. But anyway, humans tend to love fireworks.

And we'll probably come back to fireworks and gunpowder in
the future. But the modern matchtick is indeed amazing, and
but you just might need to see it again with
fresh eyes to try and see it through the eyes
of a child. Yeah, why do they need to tell
children not to play with matches because they're resist Because
they're awesome. They're like really fun to play with. They

are I mean, granted, yes they are. They are potentially
dangerous as well, but but you just think of the
experience of it. Here's this wooden stick, you know, generally
tipped with like a reddish coating. Uh, you get it
out of this cool little box. Even the match box
was always interesting because it's like this doll sized casket
or a bug sized casket. Right, it feels archaic somehow,

It's like something out of Indiana Jones. It slides open
as if it should have some kind of artifact of
significance inside. Yeah, and then you pull out the match,
you strike it across the pad and then it ignites
a brilliant spark. That sound gets the endorphins rushing through me.
It does it just something exciting, calming, comforting. Uh that

I don't realize I'm really making myself sound like a pyromaniac.
I'm not somebody who burns down buildings. Well, I think
of also the cinematic uses of of the match striking
in the darkness, flaring up and then coming back down
to a nice small Uh you know, little little doll
up of flame used a great effect in a lot
of horror movies. Yeah, I think it was. It was

it the Conjuring that had a really creepy match lighting
in the dark scene. Oh, I mean, I feel like it.
It shows up in just a lot of different shows.
Any It's often a sense of mystery, a sense of
you know, of of discovery. Sometimes there's a jump scare
in there, but a lot of times it is just
it sums up the idea of of using human technology,
human fire technology to conquer the darkness, but also like

really driving home how potent the darkness is. Because there's
that flare there, then it's reduced and then eventually, especially
if it's a horror film, Uh, the flame of the
match is going to reach the fingertips and the hero
or heroine will go ah, and then then it'll be
dark again, right, But the light from the match in
the darkness is almost kind of like a little bubble
of air at the bottom of the ocean, you know.

It's the it's this tiny, uh, little lifeline. Yeah, and
it's just with that one little spark, it's enough to
bring an oven then to full life, to to light
a lantern, to to bring your hot water heater back online,
to to to save lives through a camp fire on
a on a you know, on a winter day. Yeah,
fire bootstrapping, Yeah, I mean it can also again, it

can prove massively destruction if it is misused. But but
they're the match stick itself is is a fascinating artifact,
a fascinating invention I think to focus on in discussion
of fire technology in general. So this is gonna be
a multi part exploration of fire technology and the invention

of the match. And I think today we're gonna be
focusing primarily on the early side of this, like what
came before matches and things that might have been called matches,
but that are not exactly like the matches we think
of today. Right, We will not actually get to the
modern chemical match or the safety match in this episode,
but we're going to cover a lot of ground really

just coming to terms with humanities conquest of fire. So
to stay the obvious, fire is not a human invention,
I could I suppose you could consider a discovery though,
because it does occur naturally in the world that humans
evolved to thrive in. But it's it's not even really
a human discovery. It's more of a pre human discovery. Yeah,

there's evidence of non human animals in some ways interacting
with fire. We've talked on the stuff to blow your
mind before about the evidence of like Australian birds of
prey or at least by by many anecdotes, sometimes using
wildfires in order to help catch prey. Uh. And if so,
if those stories are true, that's like in birds even
but clearly in many of the higher primates that were

related to there's a kind of Uh, there's a kind
of like awareness of fire and a kind of regard
for it that borders on interaction and use. Right, And
in some of the the prehistoric examples will be touching
on will not even be examples of Homo sapiens using fire,
but but other of our of our kin yea, our

hominide relatives. Yes. So we've talked about fire before on
our other podcasts, stuff to blow your mind. We had
a wonderful I think, pair of episodes with the title
A World Without Fire. Uh. In the in that we
touched on on the three basics that you need in
order to have fire itself. You're gonna need heat, you're

going to need fuel, and you're going to need oxygen.
And so the resulting fire isn't so much a thing
as it is an event the rapid combustion manifested in light,
flame and heat. Yeah. Sometimes people like to ask, like
what is fire made of? You know, is it like
is it like a gas? Is it a solid? Uh?

Sometimes people assume it's some kind of plasma fire. Fire
is a mixture of things going on. So it's like
a rapid release of gases that are happening at high
heat and chemical reactions going on in the air. Yeah.
And really, I think one thing that that is going
to be neat to ruminate on is we discuss the

especially these early technologies, is that it is largely through
fire manipulation in a nations and inventions that we reach
these points where we can treat fire like a thing
rather than an event. Like it is a management of
the event that makes it into a thing or a
seeming thing that is tangible. Yeah, it makes a verb

into a noun. It makes makes an event into a substance. Now,
interestingly enough, this trifecta of ingredients necessary for fire, we're
not always in place on Earth, not at all. Yeah,
this is something we discussed in that World Without Fire episode.
I mean that that's kind of what the title is
getting at. Heat was, you know, certainly always a thing
here on Earth, but it wasn't until five and forty

million years ago, the beginning of the Paleozoic era, that
photosynthetic organisms terraformed the planet's atmosphere into an oxygenated balance
capable of providing that necessary second ingredient of oxygen. Right, so,
previously on Earth there would have been a lot of
like oxygen compounds, but not just like tons of free
oxygen in the atmosphere. And then there's that third ingredient

of fuel. And it was indeed the last ingredient really
to become available here, because what do you need to have,
like proper fuel, what do we think of its fuel
for a fire terrestrial plant matter, and that was scarce
in you know, the early ages of the planet. The
earliest evidence of charred vegetation dates back to a mere

four hundred and forty million years ago. Yeah, so I
remember talking about this in that episode of Stuff to
Blew your mind. But it's a weird thing to think
that in addition to being the water planet, you know,
Earth is the planet with liquid water and like the burning,
hot or frozen other terrestrial worlds we could find, but
Earth is also the fire planet. I mean, I think
I'm correct in saying that, except for maybe in some

very weird momentary exceptions, there's nowhere else in the Solar
System that can support fire. The oxygen and the fuel
are not present. So eventually humans and human ancestors came along,
and they would have definitely by that point they would
have encountered periodic examples of fire, of wild fire um
and this would be the result of generally lightning strikes

or I think that the prime candidate. But also you
would have seen fire occasionally from things like volcanic activity,
falling rocks that managed to spark correctly to create a spark,
much like flint and steel as we'll we'll get into
flint and steel in a bed here um and uh.
And then also there's the spontaneous combustion of organic materials.

But lightning would have been the big one. Now, certainly
at this point many many animals had already learned to
game fire and overcome it. Organtic entities cannot endure fire, really,
but the many have involved to survive it and even
depend on wildfire cycles. We see this in plants especially,
but early Homo species members of the Homo genus, which

Homo sapiens are are a member of. UH, they would
have found this sparkling brilliance uh, you know, the result
of a lightning strike on some dry wood for example,
a resulting moving spread of wildfire or something. Uh. They
would have realized that it offered a number of vital properties,
most obviously heat and light, but over time it would

prove valuable for a number of secondary purposes as well,
such as protection, tool tempering, plant selection, cooking, vegetation clearing, hunting, pottery,
food preservation, and pest control. But at a very basic level.
It brought light into the darkness and heat into the cold.
It allowed these wandering diurnal omnivores to thrive and otherwise

limiting times and places. For example, it enabled early humans
and Neanderthals to inhabit cold weather regions and endure the
ice age. I mean, when you think about it, fire
is absolutely necessary for human civilization. It's the thing that
makes so many other layers of technology possible. You couldn't
have it without fire. Yeah, you certainly couldn't have metal working,

you know, culinary advancements or any of this stuff. It
is really hard to overstate the importance of of our ancestors,
uh mastery of fire. On the technological ladder, it is
uh what probably like wrung number two maybe wrung number
one is tool uh manufacturing to tool construction. Well, yeah,

I mean, so you can you can make stone tools
without fire. You know, you can chip stone tools and
you can like wrap them together with vines and things
like that. But what are the ways that we primarily
characterize technology stages after that? I mean the big ones
are like what types of metal working humans are capable of?
All totally dependent on fire? All you know, basically all

chemistry is dependent on fire. Yeah, I mean I always
come back again to the example of the hot water
heater in my house. Like my house, Uh, a lot
of what goes on there depends on this tiny fire
that is maintained by a machine, the pilot light in there.
You know, It's like it's like a little a little
fire demon that lives in my house. Always makes me

think of the mus Hockey films House Moving Castle with
the fire demon that lives in the hearth, which is
ultimately uh yeah, this is a good one to come
back to in this episode because that sums up a
lot about the nature of fire, the precious nature of fire.
So we know that fire occurs naturally, but this must
make you wonder, Okay, so there must there was a

period that was a gap between humans just encountering natural
fires and reacting to them versus humans making their own
fire out of nothing. Uh So, like, what do we
have in between? Well, the first step is just possession
of the fire, not having the ability to recreate it,
but figuring out how to keep it once it isn't

been encountered in the wild, you know, bringing back this
precious thing and cultivating it so how far back does
this go in our history? Well, according to the seventy
Great Inventions of the Ancient World by Brian in Fagin
uh And in this case the entry is also also
features work by the contributor Stephen uh Mythin Uh. They

point out that finding evidence of prehistoric camp fires is
difficult because they in many cases leave no trace that
we can find today, and we have to avoid mistaking
naturally occurring fires for fires created or maintained by humans.
Now one and an author here that we're gonna come
back to again and again is Jamie Whisniac, who wrote

an excellent paper Matches the Manufacturer Fire in two thousand
five for the Indian Journal of Chemical Technology. And in
that Whisneyac mentions that archaeological evidence suggests that the controlled
use of fire may date back five hundred thousand years
and this evidence would would be from Beaches Pit in Norfolk, England.

Uh And the the evidence here, according to Fagan and Mythan,
is based on the fact that it shows, in addition
to other signs of habitation, areas of heavily burnt soil,
too intense and local lies to be natural. Okay, so
you imagine like fires occur in nature. Sometimes there's lightning
and a forest catches fire, but the fire kind of
like sweeps through and moves on once most of the

fuel is used up. In a naturally occurring setting, you
wouldn't expect to have a fire burning in exactly the
same one spot for a long period of time, right, Yes,
something unnatural is happening here. If if there seems to
be a fire here, and let's say every day for
a week, that's that's suspect every day for a month,
or just even periodically over the course of years. And

yet Fagan and Mythan point to another older example, and
I believe as of this recording, it is still the
oldest example that is that is presented form a unnatural
fire on this planet, and that is a one point
six million year old site in Kenya. This was discovered
in two thousand five, which is the same year as

whisney next paper. But I'm guessing that's the reason that
he does not mentioned that in his work. I mean,
it's probably, you know, given the overlap and or gap
there between those publications, he may have missed that. But this,
this finding is one point six million old year old
site in Kenya, it's based on experimental studies that show
that a regularly maintained camp fire will do two things.

It will oxidize soil to depths of up to six
inches or fifteen centimeters, and the magnetic properties of the
underlying soil may be altered, resulting in a in a
different magnetic property orientation compared to sites of natural fire
or sites where there is no burning at all and
uh And to be specific, this is referred to as

the f x J J twenty site in kuby Fa, Kenya. Okay.
So if this is correct, it looks like up to
one point six million years ago, some kind of human
ancestor had captured fire from some source and had made
a fire pit that they were able to maintain for
long periods of time, right, I think specifically it's thought

that this would have been astro Lepithecus robust us and
or Homo erectus. But again, just because you have it
doesn't mean you can of course fully utilize it, and
it definitely doesn't mean that you can create it yourself.
Just in terms of hosting the fire. Distinctive hearths within
caves don't show up till apparently sixty thousand years ago,

and the use of fire to manage landscape pops up
roughly nine thousand in Europe. But of course, once you
have a fire, what are people going to do with it?
They're going to tinker with it, They're going to poke
it with sticks. We still can't resist the temptation to
to poke around in a fire and experiment with its
properties and its power and its heat. Of course, and uh,

there's actually a wonderful line. This is from the Greek
writer Ascalis, who described fire as quote a teacher in
every skill, and a means too mighty ends. And ultimately
this is why the gift or theft of fire from
the gods factors into various myth cycles, right from that
of Prometheus in the Greek tradition to the mythic fire
driller in Chinese mythology. I was also reading of one.

This is a Lakota myth in which coyote steals the
fire from a trio of witches and to escape them. Uh,
the fire has passed from animal to animal as the
witches chase after them, um, until an old frog is
cornered by the witches and spits the burning brand into
a stump and the stump swallows it. Uh, And of

course one can't help. But think of you know, the
places you might keep a fire, you might grow a
fire and new such as an old stump. Well, yeah,
I mean I think that's a tradition for keeping a
fire is putting it inside a hollowed out tree. Yeah. That,
by the way, That details from Mark Warren on medicine
bow a dot net. But but certainly you find other

tales of of fire origins against thefts from the gods,
gifts of the gods and the Titans, and various myth
cycles around the world. Even in the ancient world. It's
clearly recognized as something that is transformative of the human
kind's roll on the earth. It's like that, you know,
whether it's a gift from the gods or something stolen
from the gods, it's a thing that marks a transition

point for what humans are and what they're capable of. Yeah,
fire change the world. But it is one thing to again,
to wield captured fire, another thing entirely to generate it yourself.
And his Whisney Act points out quote the step from
the control of fire to its manufacture required hundreds of
thousands of years and that is that is awe inspiring

to think about that there's this this long period of
time in which fire remains this thing that may be captured,
then may be cultivated, but the means of producing it
are are not known to the individuals who use it
think about I don't know. I mean, it's hard not
to start imagining the kinds of mythology that would give

rise to, you know, the idea that there is like
almost this living thing, this substance kept among you that
must always be fed or else your your livelihood is gone.
Right And again, thinking back on the fact that we're
talking about ancient peoples that that typically did not stay
in one spot for extended periods of time. They would

move around, and therefore you had to, you know, in
the words of Corman McCarthy, keep carrying the fire. You
would literally have to bring some active portion of the
fire with you. Uh So, perhaps you have like a
main camp fire, a main camp that that you're that's
your base fire, but you still need to bring some
of it with you. If you're hoping to build another

camp over here, or if you're packing up entirely, you
have to bring some glowing ember of that with you
and keep it vital until you can feed a new fire,
otherwise it will go out. And then when and where
will you acquire a new one? You'll have to get
one from other beings that are cultivating fire, or just
you know, wait in how you can find a wildfire
to steal from. If you wait until you find a wildfire,

I mean, you might be waiting past the end of
your life, right And then also I mean to to
you know, to stay the obvious too, like wildfires are
inherently dangerous, so you know that is that's very much
like stealing the meat from the lion. There. All right,
we should take a break, but when we come back
we will talk more about technology for carrying the fire.

All right, we're back. So we've been talking about this
long period of human prehistory where humans clearly had control
of fire in some way, but we did not have
the means to manufacture fire from nothing. So if a
fire goes out, you are out of luck. We do
not have the technology to make a new fire from

from no previously existing fire. So you might have something
burning that you've managed to acquire at some point, your
ancestors managed to wire at some point from a forest
fire or a lightning strike or whatever. And and now
you've just got to keep this fire fed because it's
it's your livelihood, it's how you survive. But let's say
you needed to move from one place to another, how

do you do that? Like, how do you make sure
that you can always keep the fire burning when you're
on the go? Yeah, and and again we come back
to the idea that management of fire is is a
means of turning an event into something that is at
least mostly tangible that then can be transported. So, yeah,
I was looking around on this looking for, you know,

some some ideas about how this was carried out, and
I ran across some writings by Walter Hoe, who was
a Smithsonian ethnologist of the early twentieth century, writing in
Fire as an Agent in Human Culture, Issue one thirty nine,
and he explored this very topic and provided some potential
answers based on um known examples of fire preservation from

generally from existing or very recent societies. So these examples
would have been among societies that did have the means
to manufacture fire again if they lost it. But even
if you have those means, sometimes keeping a fire going
can be advantageous, right, can be easier than trying to
laboriously strike a new fire maybe when conditions are bad, right, Yeah,

and uh And indeed, he points out that keeping a
fire going like this and the necessity of keeping a
fire going was probably the beginning of the quote enormous
fuel industries of the day. Uh so so yeah, you
just imagining that these people just having to continually feed it.
Just it's it's this thing that will never it's hunger
will never stop. If it's hunger. Uh, It's hunger dies

when it dies. And when it dies, especially if you're
in a northern climate or in the middle of winter. Uh,
that may be the death of your people as well.
So he the author looked to several examples of fire
preservation in more recent societies, and these are a few
that I think shed some interesting light. One he points
to the Andaman Islands. This is in the Bay of Bengal,

where they hollow out a tree trunk and set it
on fire and the fire remains under accumulated ashes. He
also says writes that the Cherokee would bury fire in
the ground in a fire cash and this was also
practiced by other groups of native people's in the America's
as well. And this is definitely an example though where um,

they certainly had fire creation technology, they could make fire themselves.
But uh, this is likely more about preventing the necessity
of a drawn out a flint and pyrites method of
striking a spark getting the spark going. Uh, you know,
and it reveals possible ways of carrying the fire in
the days before such techniques as well. Okay, but those

would have been mainly about preserving fire in place. What
about transporting fire from one place to another? Yeah, and
this is a this is trickier than, uh than I
think some of this might think, because you basically have
to ensure that it is it is going, it is
still burning. They're still burning there the heat uh, and
or the flame is maintained, but you have to ensure

that it's burning in a slow combustion fuel because again,
it is hungry. You can almost need the fire to
be in a state of kind of suspended animation but
not dead. So some of the ones that he points
to hear the Montabut Islands method, in which a soft
husk material from a ripe coconut is placed in a
coconut shell with a red hot ember and here he

writes it will smolder for three to four days and
can be brought on voyages across the water for fires
in any place that they land. Uh the Osagy I
was just trying to imagine trying to take fire with
you on a wooden boat. Yeah. He also points to
the Osagy tribes people of North America, who used a
fungus tinder tinder for anyone is in tinder box, this

is of course the uh you know the flammable material
you know, like a fine material. Uh that you know
that you can then catch fire with the spark that
will come back again. And something one talked about in
a minute. Oh yes, absolutely, now the uh this tinder
would be from inside of a hollow tree, placed between
two muscle shells and bound with cords. Again, it'll last

several days like this. And he also pointed to contemporary
fisherman of Cape Finistere off the coast of Spain, who
would use a fire horn. This would be like a
cow horn in which decayed would or fungus is placed
for tinder and one end of the horn is stoppard.
And so a fisherman could you know you could have
the ember in there, and the fisherman could then blow

on one end to produce fire, to light a smoke,
et cetera. Now, on a fictional note, some of you
may be fans of the book The Clan of a
Cave Bear by Gene m Owl. Again, it's a fictional novel,
but it's set in prehistoric times. I was talking to
my wife a little bit about this, and she remembered
there being passages dealing with the preservation of fire and

bringing fire from one place to another, And so I
looked it up and and in it the author described
to Neanderthals using uh uh these kind of techniques for
this reason, quote, it was easier to take a coal
from one camp fire and keep it alive to start
the next one than to try to start a new
fire each evening with possibly inadequate materials. And then on
top of this, the author presents some some supernatural ideas

that the tribe engages in the idea that this fire
then is connected to the home fire from which the
coal was taken, and that care of the coal in
transit is trusted to a senior member of the tribe
for its its death would be a dire omen and
a sign that the gods had abandoned them. The fact
that the coal comes from a previous fire, it allows
you to create kind of a genealogy of fires. Yeah.

So again this is a this is an older fictional
presentation of how Neanderthals might or might not have engaged
with fire. But it's still I think it's it's still
pretty interesting. Okay, but we know that at some point
humans come out of this period where you're just at
the mercy of maintaining fires found in nature. At some
point are historic ancestors, I guess in the Stone Age,

at some point came up with means of creating fires
that didn't previously exist, right, And one of the big
ways of doing it was, of course friction. I already
mentioned the Chinese myth of the fire driller, and this
is a reference to the bow fire drill, which is
a means of creating friction. I mean, you could ultimately
do the get some version of this by just taking

like a stick, rubbing, rubbing it between your palms and
having the end of the stick rub into you know,
another piece of wood, and then you would be able
to produce heat via friction. Right. Yeah, So the idea
there is that. Yeah, the friction generated, their heats up
the substances. If he gets it up to the ignition
point and there's enough access to oxygen around it, then

it will catch fire. But obviously, I mean, if you've
ever tried to do this, this is not easy, right,
This is an arduous, difficult task. Yes, it's sometimes it
looks easy in films, but I don't know that's certainly
in some films that really I think kind of drive
home the tedious nature of using a fire drill to

start a blaze. Um, because you're gonna get that You're
you're creating the heat via the friction, and then you
need to transfer that heat into some tinder and then
build from there. Right. Because another thing is, if you've
ever tried to like light a large piece of wood
on fire, it doesn't easily catch fire. It's much easier
to uh start a fire in what we mentioned earlier, tender,

little tiny pieces of flammable material, which, for multiple material
reasons catch fire easier. One just being that they're you know,
by being smaller, they're more surrounded by oxygen and all that. Yeah,
So the technology the fire drill pops up in various places.
For instance, you'll find it in ancient Egypt for sure. Uh,
it's one of the belongings found among au in the

tomb of Tuton Common. This would have been the fourteenth
century b C. But it apparently goes back at least
before the Indus Valley civilization to the Marigar civilization that
existed between the fourth and fifth millennium BC. You're talking
about the bow drill there. So the invention of friction

based fire creation is ultimately lost to history, but it's
often speculated that in the case of the bow example,
this is something that would have come up via would work,
especially creating like a primitive drill to aided by a bow. Perhaps,
like people would have gradually realized, oh, the same sort

of heat that we desire from a fire, I'm producing
heat when the sticks rubbed together. Um, perhaps should we
should explore that more? And then you know, experimentation. After
an experimentation, you can finally get to some sort of
fire drill method that works. And then there is a
there's another method. There is a percussion method of generating

a spark and this nowadays we think of this as
flint and steel. In older days, this would have been
pyrite and flint, which would have done this same thing.
So how exactly does this work? All? Right? So, the
basic idea is that rather than pure friction, the hard
flint edge shaves off a particle of the steel or
pyrite that exposes iron, which reacts with oxygen from the atmosphere.

So and flint and pyrite is just a slower version
of what happens with flint and steel. But what it
will end up looking like is striking two pieces of
rock together and creating a little spark um and you
would be trying to shoot that spark into some tinder
that you had gathered. Yes, yeah again once you all
you're creating is like the initial the initial spark, and

you need tinder then to get that going, turn that
into a proper flame, and then build from there a fire,
A true fire is truly built piece of fuel by
piece of fuel, gradually from the small to the large. Yeah,
the the you have the tinder, and then you have
the kindling, and then finally you have the fuel the firewood. Now,
the tinder box, for instance, is a long, very used

variation of this. It consisted of flint, fire, steel, and tinder,
which against slow burning fuel to catch the spark and
produce a flame that could then be transferred somewhere else.
But in either case you produce the heat or the
spark and then you use that to get dry leaves
or fun guy going, and this could serve as the
beginnings of a proper fire. So this ties into something

that we've talked about on the show before. One of
my favorite figures from prehistory, Otsy the Iceman so Otsy,
if you're not familiar, is a natural mummy from Neolithic Europe,
roughly from the late fourth millennium b C, who was
found preserved and partially frozen in a glacier in the
Italian Alps in the year nine uh. And Otsy is

such an absolutely fascinating historical find because the more we
learn about him, the more thrilling mysteries accumulate, like how
did this Stone age man end up so high up
in the mountains where, I mean, he's way way up
there where there's like not much of a reason to
be up that high, What was he doing there? How

did he die? And in answer to the last question,
more recent analyzes of his body, including cat scans, have
shown injuries indicating he was very likely killed by homicide,
with like an arrowhead lodged in his shoulder and some
broken bones, I think. And then when you start examining
his possessions, things get even more interesting, Like he has

a rare and special kind of ax that indicates that
he may have been some kind of you know, leader figure,
high status individual to have a metal ax like he did.
I think it was a copper axe. But also at
the same time, he has in his possession some kind
of half finished, half constructed, makeshift or damaged weapons and tools,

And the mind just starts racing to fill in the
possible scenarios that drove this guy up onto the glacier
in what appears to be hasty preparation for battle maybe
and whatever ultimately killed him. I mean, we just don't know.
But I think in the last couple of years there
was somebody who made a prehistoric action movie imagining the
last days of Otsy. I haven't seen it yet, but

I was interested in the idea. But anyway, whatever happened
to him, he came up in a previous episode of
Invention because it was the episode on chewing Gum, and
we discovered that Oatsy had in his possession a lump
of birch bark tar, and it's been hypothesized that he
might have used this tar as a kind of primitive
chewing gum. But anyway, so we mentioned Otsy's tools and belongings,

and one of the other things found on the iceman's
belt was a Neolithic fire making kid and it's very
much along the lines we've just been discussing. So his
kit included a bar shaped flint, probably used as a strikealite,
as well as particles of pyrite. I think from what
I've read, he did not actually have a large piece

of pyrite with him, but in this leather pouch where
he had his flint there were particles of pyrite, indicating
he maybe at some point had pyrite in there for
striking off the sparks. He also had a small amount
with him of a kind of fluffy fungus which was
probably used as tinder according to the author's Dick Stapard

and like a Yo Johansson in their paper Flint and
Pyrite Making Fire in the Stone Age and the Journal Antiquity,
this fungus was probably Foamy's fomentarius, which is also known
as tinder fungus. And it's this fungus that produces a
fruiting body which grows in a shape somewhat like a
horse's hoof off the side of a tree trunk. And

it has widely been used as soft organic material to
service tinder or kindling for a fire. But that's not
all because, as we discussed already, even if you had
the means to strike a friction fire, the task would
often take a lot of time or be difficult under
unfavorable environmental conditions, say if it was cold and wet outside,

or maybe if you were on a glacier. Uh So,
Oatsy had another option to carry the fire. Uh to
quote from an enumeration of Otzi's belongings from the South
Tirol Museum of Archaeology, which is where that's the museum
where Otsi is now kept, oats had quote to birch
bark containers cylindrical pots measuring fifteen to eighteen centimeters in

diameter and approximately twenty centimeters high. They were found near
the mummy. They were made from a single piece of
bark and stitched together with lime tree bast The round
piece of birch bark, which served as the base, was
also stitched on. The interior of one of the vessels
was blackened and contained freshly picked Norway maple leaves and

charcoal fragments. It is assumed that Otsy wrapped charcoal embers
in the leaves and carried them in the birch bark container.
In this way, the embers could be kept for several
hours and fanned into fire in a few seconds. So
he had a fire making hack obviously, you know, he
had the flint and at some point had pyrite. Uh,

So he could strike a fire if he needed to.
But that's hard work. It's not always gonna is gonna
be difficult to do, especially it's gonna be difficult to
do quickly. Uh. And you you might imagine, given whatever
kind of injuries and weapons situation was going on, he
might have been in a in a hurry, maybe chasing
people or being chased by people, or or who knows what.

So he's got a number with him, and that's if
he needs to start a fire immediately, he can just
pull that out and have a fire in seconds. I
hope all the dungeon masters out there listening to this,
and we'll really put their players through the ring. Or
the next time they go to make camp and they
need a fire, don't just let him say and we
make a fire and make them work for it. Ask

them what what are they going to use to make
the fire, what kind of fuel are they going to gather,
et cetera. And then by the end of it, maybe
you'll you'll enforce some some means of transporting embers from
today's camp to the next if they really want that
long rest. How much better is it in D and
D to have a fire than a camp without a fire?
Do you like special benefits? I mean, I guess it.

It's gonna depend It's gonna depend on a number of factors.
But also I think a lot of times it's gonna
depend on what the tendon masters plotting. You know, like
if you want to put them through environmental health, then yeah,
I had to say that it's super cold and you've
got to get that fire going and to stay warm,
and then you can use it as an excuse to
attract villains to the camp. I mean, yeah, there's a

there's so much to do, right because the camp fire
is so pivotal to the human experience into human history
and to our story making. Uh, there's so many things
you can do it. I mean, i've I've I've heard
it put forward that you know, just about any any
tale that we tell is a story about camp fires,
at least in a vague sense. So anyway, from all

of this, you can tell why it's advantageous to reserve
that precious hot coal rather than to go through all
these steps every time you need to make a camp.
But of course, another way to transfer fire from the
home fire to other places touches on that again, that
long time human pastime of just poking sticks around in
a fire, Because truly, is there anything better? We all

want to do it, we all need to do it.
We find a good stick and we start prodding the
hot embers until we've contracted the miracle flame onto the stick,
and then you know, we've probably waved around at least
a little bit. And by the way, speaking of of
poking around in a fire with sticks, I want to
come back to a second to fireworks, because this is

apparently the genesis of fireworks as well, Because if you
have ever thrown bamboo into a fire, you have probably
observed what happens when the heat causes the they trapped
air inside bamboo to rapidly expand, producing a popping sound.
So fireworks are a chemical attempt to equal this amusement.
I didn't know that. Yeah, But outside of fireworks and amusement,

poking a stick into a fire is a good way
to get a little bit of fire and move it
somewhere else. But it's especially if you're in a hurry.
Some sticks and twigs are gonna work better than others.
Some choices are gonna burn too quickly. Others are going
to be too resistant to burning. Fortunately, the human masters
of fire new a thing or two about other substances,
substances that they inevitably tested with fire as well. How

will this burn? What happens when we put this into
the camp fire? Certain substances ignited in the presence of
a flame and therefore prove useful. So in this we
finally reach the origins, the ancient, misty origins of the
match stick uh, in the form of the sulfur match. Right,
we're not to the friction match yet, but we are

now to the chemical match. So maybe we should take
a break and then we come back. We can discuss
sulfur and matches. All right, we're back. So a sulfur
match is as simple as it sounds. It is a
tiny stick, really a splinter that has been dipped in

sulfur uh and the sulfur ignites easily, and therefore it
is it is essentially match without the striking ability. So
in this I want to come back to what that
quote from Walter Hoe earlier about campfires being the beginning
of that enormous fuel industry, because one can easily imagine
that this doesn't just mean the wholesale harvesting of wood

in the surrounding area to to maintain a fire. Just
think of how we adapt to the use of a
home fireplace or a backyard grill. Do you make pains
to keep some dry logs on hand for your fireplace? Uh?
Do you split them ahead of time? Do you make
sure you have varied sizes on hand? Do you stockpile
bits of kindling or tender to get it going? Do

you have like you do you you point out that
you know bits of cardboard that look useful and stick
those aside for later, because that's that's part of the process. Here,
I will say, of of all the hard labor i've
I've ever tried out. I think one of the most
fun was splitting firewood. I really enjoyed that. I mean, obviously,
I'm sure that gets really into backbreaking work if you

have to keep doing it over and over a lot,
But just doing a little splitting of firewood I found
to be extremely enjoyable. So they might maybe there's something
primal in that, because when you're doing that, when you're
splitting the wood, even you were you were manufacturing something,
you know you are, you were making fuel. The logs
of your fire are a product of human remaking, and

we mainly think of fuel as a product of reduction,
uh you know, taking the tree, chopping it up into
pieces and picking up the splinters, et cetera, gathering of
uh little sticks and whatnot. But the process can also
involve the combination of elements. And so in this week
come to the sulfur match, an early invention to aid

in the transfer of fire from from the hearth, or
from the campfire, or from even a candle to some
other medium. And these were initially the early matches were
simply it's just splinters with you know, nothing else on them,
just a little stick that you could use. But it
was found that you could dip the splinter or in say, sulfur,

to create a splinter of kindling that ignites readily when
touched to flame and then burns down the length of
that splinter and allows you to you know, say move
move a little fire from one part of the camp
to the other, from one part of the home to
the other. Yes. Uh, now we mentioned this earlier, but
I just want to stress again so as not to
have any confusion, that we're not talking about standalone friction

strike matches here. Those wouldn't come until later. What we're
talking about with these early sulfur matches would be things
that are ignited by the heat of a pre existing
flame or maybe maybe easily catch fire as a kind
of chemically enhanced tinder. Yeah. I like to come back
to the tinder box, the idea of getting the you know,
getting the spark, getting the spark going just a little

bit in the tinder, and then you could use a
sulfur match to take it up to the next level
and then transfer it uh somewhere else to burn, right,
Because that's one thing that sulfur really helps with. It
suddenly gets you a big burst of flame out of
a little and shall heat. Yes, So again these are
sticks dipped in sulfur Uh, and Wizniak writes that sulfur

tip matches were already in use in China by the
sixth century CE. According to Science and Civilization in China
by Joseph Needham from nine two, this very much seems
to be the case. He points as well to Thoulku's
Records of the Unworldly and the Strange from the year

nine fifty quote, if there occurs an emergency at night,
it may take some time to make a light to
light a lamp. But an ingenious man devised a system
of impregnating little sticks of pine wood with sulfur and
storing them for ready use. At the slightest touch of fire,
they burst into flame. One gets a little flame like

an ear of corn. This marvelous thing was formerly called
a light bringing slave or yin kuang Nu, but afterwards,
when it became an article of commerce, its name was
changed to fire inch stick or wo shoon. And then
he adds that in thirteen sixty six Uh, an author
by the name of Thal Song wrote about the invention

uh and mentioned that it was sometimes credited to the
people of hang Chow where the writings where the writings
of Marco Polo described its sale. This would have been
in the UH thirdly fourteenth century. But to assume writes
that it was actually the UH the invention of impoverished
court ladies of the Northern Chi in five seventy seven

during a conquest by the Empire of the Sioux. That's interesting.
And I love that quote by Talkou, but I wonder
what it what is being translated as ear of corn there,
because I know tal Kou was not talking about Mayze, right,
mays wouldn't have been in China at the time, right.
That's an interesting point. You know, I think all kinds
of grains used to just be called corn. So maybe

that's just the idea that the flame, the resulting flame
after the spark is like this tiny colonel of or
this tiny seed, and it is very or something. Yeah,
And it is very much like a seed, right, because
it may be planted somewhere else where it may grow.
And of course the idea that it was originally called
a light bringing slave is also interesting. Now Needham added

that there's there's meanwhile, according to him, no positive evidence
of sulfur matches showing up in Europe before thirty where
they were then used up through the eighteenth century. Uh
and and they were during this time a prime means
of transferring the flame from a tinder box to another fuel.
But I have to note that Whisney act Rites of

the Romans using sulfur matches. He mentions first century Roman
historian Plenty of the Elder's writings in the Natural History,
and indeed, uh, Plenty mentions matches at least in the translation.
And this would be the bow Stock and Riley trans
Bostock and Riley translation. Uh. There there is mention of
of sulfur certainly, and then sulfur matches. So he there's

a big section here where he's going on and on
about sulfury, writes that they're four kinds of sulfur. Quote
the fourth kind is used in the preparation of matches
more particularly unquote. Yeah, I wonder I don't have the
Latin expertise to investigate this myself, but I wonder if
this could be an issue with whatever Latin term both
Stock and Riley are translating as the English word matches

there because uh, I mean, I'm wondering if like this
could be a misleading use of the English word matches
because Plenty does not describe what he's talking about. He
doesn't further explain anything. He just says, sulfur is used
in the preparation of and then whatever this noun is,
there's another now, and I know we'll come back to
in a second sulfurata. And I don't know if that's

the noun he uses in Latin. There, yeah, yeah, sulfur rata.
I ran across this. There's a there's a paper Sulfur
for Broken Glass by H. J. Leon in Transactions and
Proceedings of the American philip Logical Association, Volume seventy two.
And this is from one but it it ruminates on
the use of this word sulfurata in the writings of

the first century Roman poet Marshal And in this use H. D.
Leon believed that sulfurata clearly meant quote sulfur tipped pieces
of wood to be used for lighting fires. In the
this uh, this piece, he is he is extremely um
confident that this is what is being described. But I
love the other stuff that Plenty seems to be more

interested in. Sulfur for right. Oh yeah, yeah. Most of
what plenty is talking about are medicinal uses for sulfur
one for instance, uh quote in addition to these several uses,
sulfur is of remarkable virtue that if it is thrown
upon the fire, it will at once detect by the
smell whether or not a person is subject to epilepsy. Uh.

And then you know it also writes, sulfur has its
place among other religious ceremonies, being used as a fumigation
for purifying houses. Its virtues are also to be perceived
in certain hot mineral waters. And there is no substance
that ignites more readily a proof that there is in
it a great affinity to fire. Well, he's right about
that part. I would be very surprised if he's correct

about the epilepsy thing right now. Now need him, I
want to come back to him for a second. And
he was clearly writing with a focus on on China.
Uh and uh. The curious thing is, though he cites
Plenties writing several times in his book when discussing Chinese
inventions and you know, comparing what was known and among
the Romans such as you know, optics and burning glasses,

glasses used to magnify light and create a fire. So
I'm not sure why he doesn't mention the sulfur matches again,
unless it's a translation issue, I'm not sure that I'll
have to remain an open question for now. So at
any rate, it would seem like we're looking at two
possibilities here. One is that the sulfur match was a
Chinese invention that made its way to Rome during the

first century of its invention, and while there was little
direct contact between China and Rome, there was trade through
intermediary empires, so one can imagine a useful and simple
technology like this could spread pretty quickly. Um, you know,
even at that time. The other possibility, and I have
to stress that I do not see anyone actually making

this claim, would be that the sulfur match was independently
invented in both regions, which is just, of course possible,
because sure, because we're not talking about I mean, just
that's just the nature of invention. If you've mentioned listen
to our show, like that's that's almost always a possibility. Um. However,
I I really didn't run across anybody arguing for that.

It seems like the Chinese origin tends to be stressed
and tends to be uh the one people point to
and this Roman mention of matches. Uh, I don't know.
It's it's curious. By the way, when I was looking
into all this about, you know, what kind of contact
was there between Rome and in China during the first

century CE I, I I ran across an interesting hypothesis that
was put forward by sinologist Homer H. Dubbs, who lived
ninety nine. He'sn't known for translating Bongoose Book of Han,
and he apparently speculated that Roman prisoners of war who
were transferred to the eastern border of the Ptarthian Empire

might later have actually clashed with Han troops, pointing to
Chinese accounts of a hundred soldiers in what was described
as fish scale Formation that fought at the Battle of
Gigi in thirty six b C. Now, this is not
proven and there's no modern evidence DNA or otherwise to
back it up. Um. And then it also does not

tie into the history of matches at all. But I
found that to just be one of these sort of
fascinating um hypotheses that come up. And also there's their
movie right there. Um, this lost hundred Roman uh soldiers
that wind up in China fighting a battle. I pay
to see that. So the Parthian Empire would have been

in between. That would be like roughly Persian territory. Yeah. Yeah, Basically,
this would be one of the intermediary empires discussed, like generally,
one of the regions through which things traveled and through
which these two far flung empires would interact with each other. Uh,
you know, even if it was only and as a
matter of trade. So here's the thing, though, if the

Romans had sulfur matches and then the sulfur match really
disappeared for hundreds and hundreds of years, that that just
seems kind of hot hard to believe. Like, certainly there
were technologies Roman technologies that were lost for for a
long time, such as Romans cement so that we mentioned
in our episodes on Roads, but it's hard to imagine

something like a sulfur match being forgotten after the fall
of Rome. Yeah. I don't know that that's strange. I mean,
I don't know anything about availability of sulfur throughout throughout
Europe in the Middle Ages. Was it scarce? I'm not
sure At any rate, I don't want to I don't
want to cast bit any doubt on the Chinese origin
of the sulfur match that does seem to be the

origin of the invention. However, this is just the beginning
of the story. There's there's still so much more that
has to happen before this sulfur match, this sulfur tipped
piece of kindling eventually transforms into the modern strike match,
the modern safety match that we we know and take
for granted today. I'm so excited to keep playing with

matches all right. In the meantime, we would obviously love
to hear from anyone out there, because everyone has an
experience with matches with fire. With just the human mastery
of fire, and hopefully just even so far, we've forced
you to rethink how you how we use fire, how
we depend on fire, and the role fire has played

in human history and in the history of invention. If
you want to check out other episodes of this show,
you can find them wherever you get your podcast. If
you go to invention pod dot com, that will direct
you uh to the I heart page where you can
download the apps. But wherever you get the show, just
make sure that you subscribe and make sure that you
rate interview because that really helps out the show. And Hey,

through good old fashioned human and our interaction, just tell
people about the show. Uh, that is ultimately the best
way that it spreads spread the fire. Yeah. Huge, thanks
as always to our awesome audio producer Seth Nicholas Johnson.
If you'd like to get in touch with us with
feedback on this episode or any other, to suggest a
topic for the future, just to say hello, you can
email us at contact at invention pod dot com. Invention

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