|The Secret of Everyday Things|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|Fascinating conversations with Uncle Paul reveal the mysteries behind the dyeing and weaving of cloth, the lighting and heating of homes, the processing involved in bringing oil, coffee, tea, spices, and other foodstuffs to the table, and the power of water in all its manifestations. Excellent as follow-on to The Story Book of Science. Ages 11-14 |
E do not know how man first procured fire. Did he
take advantage of some blaze started by a thunderbolt,
or did he kindle his first firebrand in the crater of a
volcano? No one can tell. Whatever may have been its
source, man has enjoyed the use of fire from the
earliest times; but as the means of relighting it if it
went out were very imperfect or even lacking
altogether, the utmost care was taken to maintain it,
and a few live coals were always kept over from one day
to the next.
"So calamitous would have been the simultaneous
extinction of the fires in all the dwellings that, in
order to guard against such a disaster, the priesthood
took fire under its special protection. In ancient
Rome, many centuries ago, an order of priestesses
called Vestals was charged with the guarding of the
sacred fire night and day. The unfortunate one who let
it go out was punished with horrible torture: she was
"Did they really bury her alive for letting the fire go
out?" asked Jules.
"Yes, my boy. This terrible punishment inflicted on the
keepers of the fire shows you the importance they
attached to keeping at least one hearth alight so that
others could be kindled from it."
"One of our matches that we buy at a cent a
hun-  dred," said Claire, "would have saved the life of the careless
"Yes, to abolish those barbarous severities it needed
only a match, a thing which unfortunately was at that
"Many centuries passed before it was discovered how to
procure fire easily. In my young days, when I was about
your age, keeping coals alive to be used for relighting
the fire next day was still the rule in the country. In
the evening before the family went to bed, the embers
were carefully covered with hot ashes to prevent their
burning out and to keep them alive. If, despite this
precaution, the hearth was cold next morning, some one
had to hasten to the nearest neighbor's to borrow some
fire, that is to say a few live coals, which were
carried home in an old wooden shoe to keep the wind
from blowing them away."
"But I should think the old wooden shoe would have
caught fire," said Emile.
"No, for care was taken to put a layer of ashes in
first. I have told you how some children would put a
few ashes in the hollow of their hand, and on the ashes
lay live coals. They carried fire thus just as you
would carry a handful of sugar-plums.
"The layer of ashes arrested the heat of the embers and
prevented its reaching the hand. Remember what I have
already told you about the poor conducting power of
ashes, their refusal to transmit heat, a characteristic
they have in common with all powdery substances. The
little fire-borrowers knew that well enough."
 "But who taught them to do it that way?" asked Emile.
"The great teacher of all things, necessity. Caught
without shovel or wooden shoe, some one of them,
knowing this peculiarity of ashes in arresting heat,
made use of the ingenious device I have described, and
his example was sooner or later followed by others.
"Fire-producing devices are, as a rule, based on the
principle that heat is generated by friction. We all
know that we can warm our hands by rubbing them against
"That's what I always do in winter when my hands are
frozen from making snowballs," said Jules.
"That is one of the oldest illustrations of the effect
of friction, and I will add another. Hold this
round-headed metal button by the shank and rub it
briskly on the wood of the table; it will become warm
enough to produce a decided feeling on the skin."
Claire took the button, rubbed it on the wood of the
table, and then applied it quickly to her hand,
uttering a little cry of surprise and even of pain as
she did so.
"Oh, how hot the button is, Uncle!" she exclaimed. "If
I had rubbed any longer I should have scorched my
"It is by similar means that certain savage tribes
procured and still procure fire. They twirl very
rapidly between their hands a slender stick of hard
wood with its pointed end inserted in a cavity
hol-  lowed in soft and very inflammable wood. If the friction is
brisk enough and the operation properly carried out,
the soft wood catches fire. This process, I admit,
would fail of success in our hands for lack of skill."
"For my part," said Marie, "if I had nothing but a
pointed stick and a piece of wood with a hole in it for
lighting a fire, I should despair of ever managing it."
"I should not even try it," Claire confessed, "it seems
so difficult, although the button that I rubbed came
near burning me."
"What would be impossible for us is mere play for the
natives of Australia. The operator sits on the ground,
holding between his feet the piece of wood with the
little hole, and twirling the pointed stick rapidly
between his hands he soon obtains a spark with which he
kindles a few dry leaves.
"Even in our own country you may see, in any
wood-turner's shop, this friction process employed
successfully. To obtain the brown ornamental lines on
certain objects turned in a lathe, the operator presses
with some force the point of a bit of wood on the piece
in rapid rotation. The line thus impressed by friction
begins to smoke in a few moments, and soon becomes
"I pass on to other methods of producing fire. Iron and
steel, especially the latter, if rubbed against a very
hard stone give out sparks made by tiny scales of metal
that become detached and are sufficiently heated to
turn red and burn in the air. Thus the
scissors-grinder's revolving stone, although
 constantly moistened with water, throws out a shower of
sparks under the steel knife or other tool that is
being sharpened. In like manner the cobblestone struck
by the horse's iron shoe emits sudden and brilliant
"The common flint-and-steel apparatus acts in the same
way. It consists of a piece of steel that is struck
against the edge of a very hard stone called silex or
flint. Particles of steel are detached from the metal
and, made red-hot by the friction, set fire to the
tinder. This latter is a very combustible substance
obtained by cutting a large mushroom into thin slices
and drying them, the mushroom being of the kind known
as touchwood, which grows on tree trunks."
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