Fire has been controlled by mankind for over 400,000 years. Over that time, fire has been both our best friend and worst enemy.
In our homes we protect ourselves from fires with portable fire extinguishers and fire blankets. Those of use who live in apartments might even have fire escape ladders because a fire is such a risk to our lives.
But without fire we would not be much more than our primitive ancestors. Fire has in one way or another underpinned human flourishing for our entire history.
Even today, fire underpins everything in our lives. We use it to cook, create metal building structures, generate electricity on a large industrial scale, make medicines, and of course say warm.
While fire is a constant threat in our lives, it also gives us the quality of life we enjoy today.
List of 14 Uses of Fire for Mankind
Fire gives off heat as part of its chemical reaction. Throughout history humans have used fire for heat. We began with gathering around the warmth of campfires. This not only generated warmth for us, but acted as a meeting point for communication and the development of civil social behavior among early humans.
As we began to create technologies built around fire, our use of fire for heat became more complex. We developed indoor fires after learning to develop chimneys. Even today, many heating appliances in outdoor restaurants and patios still rely on burning butane to generate heat.
Fire revolutionized hunting for early humans. They would use strategically placed fires to direct animals toward traps and use fire to craft spears and arrows. Another way we gather food through hunting is through the smoking of beehives to suppress bees so we can take their honey.
Cooking remains one of the primary uses of fire. By burning meat we make it more palatable and safe for human consumption. We can also use fire to boil vegetables, eggs and other foods in hot water to purify it and soften it for human consumption. Roasting, baking, boiling and searing are all methods humans use to cook food to make it easier and safer to eat.
Light is generated as part of the chemical reaction in fire. The light that we generate from fire was used for millennia as a man-made lighting source in homes. The development of fire torches enabled us to mark the way toward a destination at night. It also enabled us to move about in night time much more safely than previously. Light from fires can also be used as a long-distance communication device (such as on the great wall of China – see below under ‘communication’).
5. Automated Movement
In the mid-1700s humans learned to create steam engines from fire. These engines turned fire (chemical energy) into mechanical energy. The steam from a fire would turn a wheel which generated controlled movement for pulleys, wheels and so forth. Early trains were operated in this way.
Later, engines became even more complex with the development of the internal combustion engine. This is the sort of engine you see in cars on the road today. These engines rely on a spark (fire) which ignites oxygen (air) and fuel (gasoline) within a controlled space. The explosion that the engines create causes pistons to spin, which in turn spin the wheels on our cars.
Most electricity generated in the world today still relies on the burning of fossil fuels and natural gas. Electrical engines in power stations are similar to the engines described above under the ‘movement’ heading. However, instead of just making something spin, electrical engines create electrical currents. The fire burns water which generates the spinning of magnets. The magnets spin around copper wires at high speed, creating electrical currents. The electrical currents are then shot out around the city via the power poles you see on the streets.
7. Manufacturing (Steel, Pottery, etc.)
Most manufacturing systems still rely on furnaces to help develop products. A steelworks, for example, uses a furnace that burns coke. This furnace burns at high temperatures to melt steel down into a pure and malleable liquid. It is shaped into the desired shape then left to cool back into its solid metal state.
Furnaces are also used in pottery to harden clay for pots, pans and plates that you might eat off!
From very early on in human history we used fire to bend wood. The heat from fire makes wood more malleable so it can bend into shape. One of the earliest uses of this technique was for the production of bows and arrows for improved hunting technologies.
9. Insect Repellent
Smoke acts as a powerful insect repellent. Still today, when you go camping, you might choose to huddle around a fire to get away from the pesky flies that are wanting to come after your tasty sausage or the mosquitoes who are after your blood! There are also rumors that smoke can repel snakes, but I’m not convinced about that (show me the evidence!). Unfortunately smoke isn’t going to scare bears away from your campground, so the best bet to keep them away is to store your food in designated bear-proof containers away from your tent and of course make lots of noise around the campfire!
10. Ceremonies, Stories and Religion
Fire has been an integral part of human ceremonies and religion for millennia. Native Americans would use fires in their celebrations of major events. Indigenous Australian ‘dream time’ folklore speaks of fire to tell moral lessons, such as in the story of the Eagle and The Crow. This story explains how the crow’s black feathers are a result of it being burned as punishment for its greed.
The symbolism of fire as a symbol of purification can also explain why fire is often used as a ceremonial device. In Vedic Hindu religions, it is often used as a way to speak to the gods and ward off evil spirits.
11. Water Purification
Using fire to boil water helps to purify the water. Still today, one of the best ways to purify water that comes out of the tap in your home is to sit it on a rolling boil for 5 minutes.
To separate out water and salt in sea water, the water needs to be boiled and the rising water vapor needs to be recovered. This can be done through boiling the water and placing a class surface on a slope about half a foot above the pan. The water vapor will rise, accumulate on the glass surface, and trickle down the glass to be collected in its purified in a separate cup. This is a long, slow process, but can be a last resort for getting drinking water next time you’re stuck on a desert island!
Fire’s low-light and flickering effects can create a romantic mood. Hence, candles are often used as a way to create a romantic atmosphere. Couples will often buy one another candles or place candles around the place during a romantic dinner to get in the romantic mood!
Fire enabled long-distance communication for our ancestors. The great wall of China had light stations lined along the wall so messages could be sent rapidly. On one horizon, someone would light a fire to sound the alarm that an invasion was underway. On the next horizon, the next sentry would see the fire and light theirs to pass the message on to the next station on the next horizon. In this way, a message that trouble was brewing could be sent many hundreds of miles within minutes.
Another way fire was used for communication was lighthouses. A fire on a lighthouse would let sailors know to avoid a particularly dangerous rocky outcrop in the sea.
And of course, Native Americans used smoke signals very effectively. Different Native American nations had different smoke signals – but in a hypothetical situation, one puff of smoke might mean “Look, here I am!”; two might mean “I’m okay”, and three might mean “I’m in trouble!”
14. Controlling Wildfires
Fire remains one of the most effective methods for containing out of control wildfires. ‘Controlled Burns’, also known as ‘Hazard reduction burns’, can prevent wildfires from engulfing towns.
One method of controlled burning is to burn ‘fire breaks’ ahead of a wildfire. These long strips of burnt-off vegetation are created by firefighters under controlled conditions. Firefighters keep it under control using fire trucks and firefighting pumps and suppress it before the wildfire gets too close. When the out-of-control wildfire arrives, it finds all the fuel in its path has been burned, causing it to flame out.
Another methods is to do regular pre-summer burns to keep vegetation low. This may prevent a wildfire from getting out of control in the first place. In one state in Australia (NSW), the government conducted between 650,000 and 850,000 hectares of “fuel reduction burns” per year. This practice of controlled burning has been undertaken in Australia for many thousands of years to minimize bush fire risk. It was undertaken by Aboriginal land managers long before Europeans arrived.
Fire is a constant presence in our lives. While we have to be careful not to let it get out of our control, we also need to use it constantly for health, cooking, warmth, and life. But throughout history humans have also used it for recreational and enjoyment purposes. Its use in religion and romance shows just how much we humans have a close relationship with fire.
Do you have any other good ideas for how we use fire? Feel free to share them in the comments below!