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The Secret of Everyday Things by  Jean Henri Fabre


 

 

FIRE

[104]

"W
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 buried alive!"

"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- [105] dred," said Claire, "would have saved the life of the careless Vestal."

"Yes, to abolish those barbarous severities it needed only a match, a thing which unfortunately was at that time unknown.

"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."

[106] "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 each other."

"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 hand."

"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- [107] 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 carbonized.

"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 [108] 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 flashes.

"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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