Quest for Fire

Off the keyboard, microphone and camera of RE

Published on the Doomstead Diner on August 18, 2013

Discuss this article at the Science, Inventions and Technology Table inside the Diner

I got asked a tongue-in-cheek question by Stucky over on TBP in reference to my last article on the Invention of the Wheel about whether I think Homo Sapiens will go extinct for a lack of matches:

Hey, FIRE was a pretty big invention also. What’s your next article gonna be? That mankind went extinct because we ran out of energy to produce matches?

Indeed, Fire was a VERY big invention, and came a good deal earlier than the Wheel did. Actually, fire itself was not the invention of course, God invented that. The Inventions were means and methods to make and control fire. There is decent dispute in the anthropology community of eggheads as to precisely how long ago fire came under the control of earlier versions of the HOMOS, running anywhere from around 100,000 years ago to 1,000,000 years ago.

The control of fire by early humans was a turning point in the cultural aspect of human evolution that allowed humans to cook food and obtain warmth and protection. Making fire also allowed the expansion of human activity into the dark and colder hours of the night, and provided protection from predators and insects.[1]

Evidence of widespread control of fire dates to approximately 125,000 years ago and later.[2] Evidence for the controlled use of fire by Homo erectus beginning some 400,000 years ago has wide scholarly support, while claims regarding earlier evidence are mostly dismissed as inconclusive or sketchy.[3]

Claims for the earliest definitive evidence of control of fire by a member of Homo range from 0.2 to 1.7 million years ago (Mya).[4]

quest-for-fire3Obviously, Homo Erectus did not have Matches to work with, and in fact in the earliest years couldn’t make fire purposefully on his own, just Save it from naturally occurring sources like Forest Fires. A film called Quest for Fire was made about that, with of course a ton of Hollywood Speculation involved in it. Anthropological accuracy there is questionable to say the least. LOL. However, it is pretty certain at the beginning the Homos did not make the fire, just control it and save it.

Somewhere along the line though, Homos figured out how to MAKE fire through Friction, along with getting Sparks by knocking together stone and iron pyrite and other naturally occurring minerals.


Fire making, fire lighting or fire craft is the process of starting a fire artificially. Fire was an essential tool in early human cultural development.[1]

The control of fire by early humans is said to date back to either Homo erectus or very early Homo sapiens: that is, hundreds of thousands of years ago, based on archaeological evidence of hearths.[citation needed] Smoldering plants and trees, or any source of hot coals from natural fires, may have been the first resources exploited by humans to control fire. Friction is the most commonly used primitive method for making fire. Ancient techniques for starting friction fires include the hand drill, the bow drill, the fire plow and the pump drill. The flint and steel method, where hot sparks are struck from a piece of steel or iron onto suitable tinder and fanned into flames, was also used by primitive cultures. These methods have been known since the Paleolithic age, and are still in common use by some indigenous peoples.

No real time stamp on when these methods came into wide use, though it probably was no more than 150K years ago when fire use really started to take off for the Homos. Making TODAY is so simple most people don’t even really think about it. Just Flic your Bic! I start a fire a dozen times a day lighting up a Cancerette. LOL. The Bic Lighters though and even the Zippo Lighters that came before them are very recent Inventions, prior to that most people in the industrialized world used Matches. These little fire making tools came about in the early 1800s

A match is a tool for starting a fire. Typically, modern matches are made of small wooden sticks or stiff paper. One end is coated with a material that can be ignited by frictional heat generated by striking the match against a suitable surface.[1] Wooden matches are packaged in matchboxes, and paper matches are partially cut into rows and stapled into matchbooks. The coated end of a match, known as the match “head,” contains either phosphorus or phosphorus sesquisulfide as the active ingredient and gelatin as a binder. There are two main types of matches: safety matches, which can be struck only against a specially prepared surface, and strike-anywhere matches, for which any suitably frictional surface can be used. Some match-like compositions, known as electric matches, are ignited electrically and do not make use of heat from friction. the Matches came into popular use for fire making, in the late 1700s once some principles of Thermodynamics were elucidated, Fire Pistons became a popular means for getting Fires started. Fire Pistons work on the principle of rapid compression of gas heating it up, enough so to ignite some tinder, which you then use to make a fire. It is essentially the same process that a Diesel Engine uses in the combustion of Oil. The Compression Cycle heats it up enough to ignite the Oil, which then explodes for an expansion cycle in the Engine. You can still buy them, or even make one yourself.

So there are in fact tons of ways to make a fire besides the Matches that Stucky mentioned in his post, but matches do present a very good example of what will likely become quite difficult to come by as we progress down the collapse road here. Why did matches come to replace the Fire Pistons, Flint & Steel and other methods which had worked pretty well over the millenia for fire-making? Because they were REALLY easy to use! No preparations necessary, no Blowing on a small glowing ember to get the fire going, all you needed to do was Strike the Match, and POOF, insta-flame!

Why do matches work so easily to get a fire started? Because of the main chemical component of matches, Phosphorus. Phosphorus in its elemental form oxidizes very rapidly, at a very high temperature. It’s actually the main element involved in transferring energy around through ALL biological organisms, in the compound ATP, or Adenosine Triphosphate. Life doesn’t run at all without Phosphorus to move around the energy, and it is also an important part of Agricultural Fertilizers.

Phosphorus in the early years was isolated by Alchemists by boiling down Horse Urine, in its elemental form it is not very commonly found, there are just a few mines for Phosphate dense rock for mining sprinkled around the world

Phosphates are the naturally occurring form of the element phosphorus, found in many phosphate minerals. In mineralogy and geology, phosphate refers to a rock or ore containing phosphate ions. Inorganic phosphates are mined to obtain phosphorus for use in agriculture and industry.[2]

The largest phosphorite or rock phosphate deposits in North America lie in the Bone Valley region of central Florida, United States, the Soda Springs region of Idaho, and the coast of North Carolina. Smaller deposits are located in Montana, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina near Charleston along Ashley Phosphate road. The small island nation of Nauru and its neighbor Banaba Island, which used to have massive phosphate deposits of the best quality, have been mined excessively. Rock phosphate can also be found in Egypt, Israel, Morocco, Navassa Island, Tunisia, Togo and Jordan, countries that have large phosphate mining industries.

Phosphorite mines are primarily found in:

In 2007, at the current rate of consumption, the supply of phosphorus was estimated to run out in 345 years.[4] However, some scientists now believe that a “peak phosphorus” will occur in 30 years and that at “current rates, reserves will be depleted in the next 50 to 100 years.”[5] Reserves refer to the amount assumed recoverable at current market prices, and, in 2012, the USGS estimated 71 billion tons of world reserves, while 0.19 billion tons were mined globally in 2011.[6] Phosphorus comprises 0.1% by mass of the average rock[7] (while, for perspective, its typical concentration in vegetation is 0.03% to 0.2%),[8] and consequently there are quadrillions of tons of phosphorus in Earth’s 3 * 1019 ton crust,[9] albeit at predominantly lower concentration than the deposits counted as reserves from being inventoried and cheaper to extract.

Some phosphate rock deposits are notable for their inclusion of significant quantities of radioactive uranium isotopes. This syndrome is noteworthy because radioactivity can be released into surface waters[10] in the process of application of the resultant phosphate fertilizer (e.g. in many tobacco farming operations in the southeast USA).

The numbers provided here in this Wiki article are questionable on many levels. The problem, as with extracting Oil is not so much whether it is present in quantity, but what the costs involved energetically are in its extraction and refinement. In the absence of copious Oil to run the mining equipment along with ore of lower and lower quality avaialable all the time, at a certain point mining it and refining it becomes overall net negative both in energy acquired as well as monetary profit. Same as with Oil, it might still be in the ground, but if the extraction cost is greater than what price you can get selling the product, the production will eventually shut-in.

Back to the Matches, that technology is dependent on lots of cheap phosphorus available to mine up, so once Cheap Phosphorus is unavailable and/or Cheap Oil is unavailable to mine up said Phosphorus, the Matches will cease production. Far as the current bunch of Homos making fire though, a lack of matches won’t impact on that one at all, because they are basically obsolete already anyhow, AND there are replacement technologies that can do a similar job, though some of them not as easily or quickly as matches do it.

This makes Matches substantially DIFFERENT from the technology discussed last week, that of the Wheel. There is no substitute at all for wheels really, at least none that can replace its ability to reduce the work load for Homo Sapiens and/or Animal Labor employed to move around wheeled vehicles.

For the Survivalist worried about the day the Walmart Shelves go bare of Matches, there are tons of solutions available.

1- Lay in a decent supply of Matches. Long as you keep them dry, they’ll last the rest of your lifetime easy and not take up a whole lotta room either.

2- Lay in a Supply of Bic Lighters. These suckers keep well if you don’t use them. I have a supply I laid in back in 2008 I am still using.

3- Get some of the innumerable forms of Spark Generators you use with a Hunting Knife to make a spark. All over the racks at Walmart in the Camping Department

4- Buy or make a Fire Piston. You can make a very good one from a Maglite Flashlite.

5- Get a Hand Crank Drill. Put a wood dowel in place of a Drill Bit in the Chuck, crank a while over a 2×4 board. Fire in no time and way easier than a Bow Fire Drill to use.

6- Got Auto Batteries and means to recharge? Short Circuit briefly, the wires will torch any decent tinder.

7- Got a Magnifying Glass? Long as the Sun shines, you can get a fire started anytime…

Here’s a few items currently On Sale at your local Konsumer Outlet for fire starting, from the latest in Diner Techno-Shit, Diner TV Smiley

Cruise the aisles of Konsumer Paradise with RE. LOL.

In ALL cases though, it is not the means to START a Fire that is your Issue here, it is having enough FUEL to keep it burning!

Where I live up here on the Last Great Frontier, in the near term this is no problem whatsoever. Trees everywhere around here at the moment. Besides that, still lotta Coal available from the mine in Healy, and really quite a bit of Oil too even locally, not up on the Slope. Not enough for running productive commercial oil fields to refine to gasoline or diesel, but just to get up some burnable Oil, quite a bit. Healy Coal is exposed at Ground Level too, you can chip the stuff off with a pick axe.

Different situation in the Big Shities and Suburbia though. There is a significant LACK of combustible material there, besicdes of course the Furniture and the McMansions themselves. Not to mention population density in said locations is so great that they can quickly burn up even that reservoir of energy.

This is the fallacy behind believing that Technological Innovation can Save the Day here, it is NOT a technological problem of not having means and method to make a fire, I don’t think we will forget that knowledge too soon here. It is a RESOURCE problem of having what to BURN! You cannot solve Resource Problems through technological innovation. No matter how wicked smart you are in the knowledge of how to MAKE a fire, if you don’t got what to burn, it is quite useless knowledge.

It is of course not just fire where this problem rears its Ugly Head, it is systemic. You can be the most brilliant IT programmer of all time, but if you cannot bring together all the rare earth minerals into a factory with a fabulous Clean Room to create the semiconductors that go on a motherboard of a laptop, your programming skills are WORTHLESS. You got the knowledge, but cannot apply it due to a lack of resource.

In the near term, we will not lose the ability to make fire, and there still is quite a bit left around to burn as well. The problem comes in terms of burning stuff faster than it gets replenished, along with the Waste produced by said burning, which generally speaking is CO2 in the atmosphere. Do we really NEED fire to survive as Homo Sapiens? Gail Tverberg and I have been around the block quite a few times on her Blog Our Finite World. To Gail, Homo Sapiens has become ADAPTED to using Fire, and absolutely needs external energy input of this sort besides Food to survive. She also argues that we in fact have to COOK our food, we are incapable of survival without cooking ans “soft foods”, because our “Small Jaws” have adapted to food prepared in this way.

Is this true? I for one do not think so. There is hardly anything you eat cooked you cannot eat raw, and you can substitute for powerful Jaws a coupla ROCKS to pound down anything real tough. You can mince meat with a knife, and you can Ferment plenty of stuff as well, Cheese & Beer for intance which make up a big part of my diet! Worms are mighty tender right from the get-go, I know, I ate plenty of them as a kid. LOL.

Anyhow, next time I get Gail on the line for a Podcast, I will hash this issue out with her further. Meanwhile, prep up, but don’t be too worried about losing Fire in the near future here, this is a worry quite a bit down the line overall. We’ll lose the Wheel before that, and before that we’ll lose the Lights, and before that we’ll lose the computers and all the Techno-Gadgetry that brought this post to you today on your laptop.

Only time will tell how long each of these Inventions which came over the course of the Evolution of Homo Sapiens will last here. Stay redundant, and follow the KISS principle. The less technology you DEPEND on, the better.



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