Monday, September 30, 2019

Fire starters - fire pistons, fire syringes

Fire pistons, (or fire syringe, pneumatic syringe, instantaneous light-giving syringe) were ingenious devices created out of wood, horn, bamboo, ivory, bone or metal by the peoples of Southeast Asia. The plunger would force the air in the tube to compress and get very hot, thereby lighting the tinder in the base.  In Europe they were usually a "scientific curiosity."  The fire piston on left was from Borneo.

Fire Syringe 1840

Improved Fire Syringe, having a large stopcock at the bottom; in one side of the cock is an opening into which the tinder may be put: turn the key and the tinder will be enclosed in the cylinder; after forcing down the plunger, open the cock, and the tinder may be taken out and a taper lighted by it. $2,00 and $3,00.

Fire piston  1832
 Ab is a brass cylinder, similar in appearance to a small brass cannon, having the hole rather better than three-eighths of an inch in diameter, drilled true and clean rinsed, Cd is the form of a piston to work in the cylinder, but unpacked. Ef is the same ready packed with thick leather and fitted up for use. n is a circular brass nut, working against the screw to keep the packing tight, K is a small hook, fastened in a hole drilled through the nut n. c is the handle to the piston and is made of wood. The method of use is described as follows: 

 "Prepare some thin cotton rag (older and thinner the better) by steeping it in a solution of saltpeter, and drying it in a warm oven; tear a small piece off and place it on the hook K; introduce the piston Ef into the cylinder Ab a short distance only; then take the cylinder in the right hand, place it perpendicular upon the floor or a table, and strike the handle E with the ball of the right band, so that the piston may rapidly descend to the bottom of Ab, and being suddenly withdrawn, the tinder will be found on fire, mid will light n common brimstone match. Amadou, or German tinder, which may be obtained at any of the principal druggists, Is likewise a good tinder, but I prefer the rag steeped in saltpeter. ...

... the materials used in the manufacture of the cylinder and piston which may be of bamboo, wood, horn, ivory, bone, brass, or lead (lead and tin usually); the external form; such accessories as the tinder receptacle which may be separate from the instrument, and consist of bamboo, nut-shells, beans, palm-spathe, or of woven materials.
[Balfour 1907]

Ethnography of the Fire Piston
"When a body has its density increased its capacity for heat is diminished. The rapid reduction of air to one-fifth of its volume evolves heat sufficient to inflame tinder."  This is the principle involved in the operation of the aerophore, pyrophorus, fire syringe, or fire piston, as it has been variously called.

The device for lighting tinder is a tube closed at one end with & smooth and accurate bore fitted with a plunger packed at the end to insure complete compression. At the end of the plunger was a small cavity for holding the tinder.

This instrument was a scientific curiosity [in early 1800 America and Europe] sometimes used by lecturers to demonstrate the heat effects of air compression. It was sometimes, though rarely, used by individuals as a personal strike-a-light. The instrument as made by white men was manifestly unsatisfactory and uncertain in its performance. This is because the white man did not know the details of its proper construction. ...

Its technology among the various tribes practicing its use give it a native phase. It is of a higher grade of invention than the fire drill, but not more difficult of conception and execution. The entire stock of the genius of man is not centered in the advanced nations. Theories of the origin of the fire syringe have been vitiated by the idea that it is an apparatus of scientific rather than native technology.

Henry Balfour, who has monographed the fire syringe, states that it "extends sporadically over a wide range from northern Burma and Siam through the Malay Peninsula and the Malayan Archipelago to its eastern limits in the islands of Luzon and Mindanao in the Philippines." Mr. Balfour shows that the instruments occur in Burma, French Indo-China, Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Sarawak, Borneo, British North Borneo, Java, Flores, and the Philippine Islands.
Of the eight fire syringes in the United States National Museum from widely separated localities, four have a bore of one-fourth of an inch, one of five-sixteenths and two of three-eighths inch. One may conclude on the showing that one-fourth inch is the effective bore. The depth varies from 1 3/4 inches (two specimens) to 4 1/2 inches. On this showing the depth is not important. Horn and hardwoods are the materials of the specimens above mentioned (figs. 1-5 [above, 1-2 Thailand, 3-4 Phillippine Islands, 5 Java, Indonesia]).  [Hough]

Fire pistons Balfour 1-7

Fig. 1. Fire syringe, from patent specification of Richard Lorentz. 1807, No. 3007; printed 1856.
Fig. 2. Fire piston, from E. J. Mitchell. June 19, 1832, in The -Mechanics' Magazine, XVII, 1832, p. 328.
Fig. 3. Fire piston, France. From The Penny Magazine, July 20, 1834, p. 268.
Fig. 4. Fire piston, England: of rolled brass; length of cylinder, 14 cm. For domestic use or for scientific experiment. E. Bidwell collection.
Fig. 5. Ditto, England: cylinder of rolled brass, 10.2 cm. long; piston of steel, 0.5 cm., with brass mounts and leather packing. E. Bidwell collection.
Fig 6. Ditto, England; cylinder of cast brass, 8.1 cm. long; piston of steel, 8.6 cm., with brass mounts; the packing is of brass. E. Bidwell collection.
Fig. 7. Fire piston, modern French: cylinder of white metal, 7.6 cm., with ebony knob; at side, a tube for cord tinder fitted with ball-and-chalu extinguisher; piston of ebony, 7.8 cm. Purchased in Paris. Given by Mr. Miller Christy to author, 1902.

Balfour, Henry.  "The Fire-Piston"  Anthroppological Essays presented to Edward Burnett Tylor in honour of his 75th Birthday, Oct. 2,1907  p17-50  p49 illus
Hough, Walter.  Fire as an agent in human culture.  Smithsonian Bulletin #139.  1926 image
Hough, Walter.   Fire-making apparatus in the United States National Museum.   1890 
Mechanics Magazine.  June 19, 1832  illus  in Balfour 1907
Olmsted, Denison.  Mechanics and hydrostatics. DC:1840

©2019 Patricia Bixler Reber
Researching Food History HOME

No comments:

Post a Comment