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No. 394:
Prometheus' Fire

Today, we steal fire from the gods. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The recurrent theme in stories of our origin is that we've stolen knowledge from God, and we've usurped His power. Adam ate the apple of knowledge and was thrown out of Eden for it. Prometheus stole fire and was severely punished for giving us the power to become as gods. For Zoroastrians, fire was a gift of truth, order, and righteousness. In that sense, the possession of fire is the possession of knowledge.

So we wonder, how did Prometheus actually steal fire? We've used fire for hundreds of thousands of years. We find evidence deep in the ancient caves of Peking Man. But using fire when it's available is a world apart from creating it. Prometheus's real theft was learning to create fire at will.

All early creation of fire involved doing mechanical work to raise the temperature of something to the combustion point. We created the first fires by striking flint against iron pyrite to make tiny, high-temperature chips break away. Those heated chips are what we call sparks.

That was common in the late Paleolithic period. It might go back 20,000 years. Steel, or at least heat-treated iron, later replaced iron pyrite. But we were still using the basic idea in 1827, when friction matches were finally invented.

Friction took another form in firestarters that used the friction of wood on wood. Learning to do that was far less accidental. It took a huge intervention of human ingenuity. And the variety of means fairly sings of the metaphorical power of fire to evoke thought.

Since wood is an insulator, friction can generate intense heat in a small part of a wood block. This can be done by plowing, drilling, or sawing one piece against another. Drilling is done with all kinds of drives -- hands, bowstrings, drawstrings, and more. It's hard to date wood-on-wood firestarters, since they were all small and biodegradable.

The most complex of the old firestarters is the Southeast Asian fire-piston. A bone piston rides in a precision-drilled cylinder. The piston has a small tinder hole in its face. When it's driven into the hole by a single hammer blow, the air temperature rises hundreds of degrees, and -- with luck -- it lights the tinder.

So the ancient legends seem to be correct. We did indeed use the fire of the mind to steal the fire of the hearth. Fire is the most elemental technology and the most pervasive one. It is at once booty from the gods and a gift of the mind.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Singer, C., Holmyard, E.J., and Hall, A.R., A History of Technology. Vol. I, New York: Oxford University Press, 1954, Chapter 10.