Rio History: Making Sparks

Special to the PRESS

The ability to make fire by rubbing two sticks together was arguably the single greatest accomplishment made by our forefathers. The principle is simple; one wooden stick, called the drill or saw, was twisted or rubbed against another, known as the hearth. If done properly, enough heat is created to ignite dried tinder placed where the two objects touch. Sometimes, grit was used to create extra friction. At last, humans could sleep in relative safety, as the flames from blazing fires kept predators at bay.

As man spread across the earth, he discovered a new way to create fire by striking flint and metal together. Soon, seasoned travelers would not venture forth without a tinder kit containing flint, steel (or another metal), and tinder. With this advanced technology a fire could be built in as little as thirty minutes.

Materials used in making the kits varied considerably, but all were designed to keep the tinder dry. In 19th century India, a gentleman attached a slim brass box to his belt while the common man covered their fire boxes with skin from goat’s testicles. You have to wonder what Freud would have made of the whole thing.

English chemist, John Walker, (no connection to the famous scotch whiskey with the same name) invented the friction match in 1827. These new-fangled fire sticks, commonly called Lucifers, could be struck against almost any surface and produce a pale noiseless fire. But phosphorus, the main component used in the new matches, is very unstable, sometimes bursting into flames from the slightest contact.

There were other unforeseen consequences too. An article in the 1846 issue of the Northern Journal of Medicine, described the environmental dangers experienced by young girls who produced the matches in poorly ventilated factories. Red ulcerated gums, the first symptoms of phosphoric poisoning, were soon followed by a general deterioration of the jawbone. As a result of very real dangers, Lucifers were outlawed in many towns.

Salvation was on the horizon though. Louise V. Aronson developed a match using sulfur and registered his invention under the name “Safety Match” on March 16, 1897.

Fifteen years later, Ronson and his partner Alexander Harris, produced the first modern pocket lighter, named the “Wonderlite.” This lighter operated by scratching a metal rod over a strip of flint, creating a spark that ignited a fuel-soaked wick. The Wonderlite underwent several transformations over the next twenty years or so until the companies catalogs included automatic table-lighters and a number of novelty-luxury lighters, built into cigarette cases and mechanical pencils.

Guns and lighters have always proven to be a match up as illustrated by the lighters popularity during the two world wars. Lighters provided soldiers and sailors immediate flames for illumination, rescue beacons, fires for cooking and warmth and not incidentally, lighting up of cigarettes. Due to frequent dampness, matches were often useless and as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of all inventions. Mechanically minded soldiers used cartridge cases, bullets, helmets, coins and other front-line debris to create rudimentary mechanisms that were highly inventive in design. These trench-art lighters have become very popular and share a unique place in the heart of collectors around the world.

The basic cigarette lighter of today has changed very little since Ronson’s invention. Unfortunately, sometimes man’s progresses can back-fire, so to speak.

In the 21st century, lighters are being mass produced to resemble just about anything you can imagine and are catching the eye of the consumer as never before. But there is a “dark’ side to Aronson’s invention, illustrated in part by the carelessness of which people dispose of these “disposable items”. Just take a walk on the beaches of Padre Island sometime and count how many you see.

The moral of the story is; just when we think man has become enlightened, he comes full circle and finds himself right back in the dark.

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