Bowling Green Fire Department, 1898

A Brief History of Fire

Petroglyph of early humans using torches
 Myths and legends about the origin of fire almost always involve the idea of human beings stealing it from the gods. Various strategies are described. In the tale of Prometheus, for example, the hero takes fire from the skies and transports it in a hollow tub.

The use of fire originated in Africa. When people migrated from there to other parts of the world, the use of fire spread. That was about 60,000 years ago.  It is believed that fire began to be used for warmth during the Ice Age, which ended about 10,000 B.C. Fire, once obtained, was not always easy to preserve. At first, it was kept by burying it and keeping the ashes alive. Later, a type of slow burning stick was designed.

William the Conqueror

Fire was used to smelt metal starting about 3,000 B.C. in Asia. Iron took longer to develop, and is seen in use by the Hittites in West Asia around 1,500 B.C.  It's use spread to Europe and Asia from there.  When metal was developed, a fire cover or 'curfew' was created. It was placed over coals, keeping them alive overnight. It may have emerged independantly in Africa around 300 A.D.

Time was marked by the placing of curfew on coals, at first announced by drums and later by bells. In 1068, during the reign of William the Conqueror, it was the law that bells be rung at seven in the evening to announce time to cover fires and put out lights. This had the added benefit, (for William), of preventing people from gathering at night.

Henry I of England
Henry I repealed the law in 1100 but curfew bells were rung routinely till very recently. Many Colonial towns had a curfew law and many places kept the laws until early in the 20th Century. Laws eventually morphed to apply to children under 15 staying out of the streets past cerain hours. As recently as 1943 laws were enacted relating to both the dimming of lights and underage children.

But, to return to the history of fire. Fires not only needed to be watched so they wouldn't extinguish but so they wouldn't spread or, in early times be stolen. Fire keepers were selected by communities for the task. Fires also provided a central point for gathering and both tribal/community and individual family fires played a part in social structures.

Priestess guarding Vestal fire in Ancient Rome
In early history fires were considered sacred and often symbolized religion itself. With time, their significance dwindled somewhat. The hearth, however, remained the center of homes and the symbol of hospitality and happiness. Fire has, therefore, remained a central symbol of humankind.

Communal fires in early groups were often placed in front of caves or other shelters, central to everyone who might need to use it. It is thought that the origin of early round houses might have been the need for a shield to protect fires from wind and other elements. The first houses were built during the Late Stone Age, about 6,000 B.C.  Also around this time people started to use ovens and kilns to fire ceramics. Charcoal fires were in use by about 4,000 B.C.

The Romans were the first to use fire to heat water around 200 B.C. They not only had hot water in their homes for bathing but figured out how to use it to heat them as well. Later fires were built in pits in the center of family shelters with chimneys being part of the floor design.

A Medevil Kitchen
During the Middle Ages, the use of hot water pipes fell out of use but chimney's began to be used to deal with smoke. About the same time, pipes began to be used for heating water in the Middle East.

Chimneys as we know them are of unknown origin but are known to have existed in England in the 1100s and to have been common in Venice by the 1300s. They continued to be considered a luxury and only seen in the homes of the wealthy as late as Tudor England, however.

In the Colonies, officers known as "Firewards" were appointed by justices of the peace and town selectmen. They carried 5 foot long red staffs with brass spires on the tip to show their office. Ultimately, fire departments were created and methods of fire prevention and surpression improved and grew with them.

New York Fire, 1776