Scattered over the earth at the present time various stages of civilization are to be found, from the primitive savages to the most highly cultivated peoples. Although it is possible that there are tribes of lowly beings on earth to-day unfamiliar with fire or ignorant of its uses, savages are generally able to make fire. Thus the use of fire may serve the purpose of distinguishing human beings from the lower animals. Surely the savage of to-day who is unable to kindle fire or who possesses a mind as yet insufficiently developed to realize its possibilities, is quite at the mercy of nature’s whims. He lives merely by animal prowess and differs little in deeds and needs from the beasts of the jungle. In this imaginary journey to the remote regions beyond the outskirts of civilization it soon becomes evident that the development of artificial light may be a fair measure of civilization.
In viewing the development of artificial light it is seen that preceding the modern electrical age, man depended universally upon burning material. Obviously, the course of civilization has been highly complex and cannot be symbolized adequately by the branching tree. From its obscure beginning far in the impenetrable fog of prehistoric times, it has branched here and there. These various branches have been subjected to many different influences, with the result that some flourished and endured, some retrogressed, some died, some went to seed and fell to take root and to begin again the upward climb. The ultimate result is the varied civilization of the present time, a study of which aids in penetrating the veil that obscures the ages of unrecorded writing. Likewise, material relics of bygone ages supply some threads of the story of human progress and mythology aids in spanning the misty gap between the earliest ages of man and the period when historic writings were begun. Throughout these various stages it becomes manifest that the development of artificial light is associated with the progress of mankind.
According to a certain myth, Prometheus stole fire from heaven and brought this blessing to earth. Throughout the mythologies of various races, fire and, as a consequence, light have been associated with divinity. They have been subjects of worship perhaps more generally than anything else, and these early impressions have survived in the ceremonial uses of light and fire even to the present time. The origin of fire as represented in any of the myths of the superstitious beings of early ages is as suitable as any other, inasmuch as definite knowledge is unavailable. Active volcanoes, spontaneous combustion, friction, accidental focusing of the sun’s image, and other means may have introduced primitive beings to fire. A study of savage tribes of the present age combined with a survey of past history of mythology, of material relics, and of the absence of lamps or other lighting utensils leads to the conclusion that the earliest source of light was the wood fire.
Even to-day the savages of remote lands have not advanced further than the wood-fire stage, and they may be found kneeling upon the ground energetically but skilfully rubbing sticks together until the friction kindles a fire. In using these fire-sticks they convert mechanical energy into heat energy. This is a fundamental principle of physics, employed by them as necessity demands, but they are totally ignorant of it as a scientific law. The things which these savages learn are the result of accidental discovery. Until man pondered over such simple facts and coördinated them so that he could extend his knowledge by general reasoning, his progress could not be rapid. But the sluggish mind of primitive man is capable of devising improvements, however slowly, and the art of making fire by means of rubbing fire-sticks gradually became more refined. Mechanical improvements resulted from experience, with the consequence that finally one stick was rubbed to and fro in a groove, or was rapidly twirled between the palms of the hands while one end was pressed firmly into a hole in a piece of wood. In the course of a few seconds or a minute, depending upon skill and other conditions, a fire was obtained. It is interesting to note how civilized man is often compelled by necessity to adopt the methods of primitive beings. The rubbing of sticks is an emergency measure of the master of woodcraft at the present time, and the production of fire in this manner is the proud accomplishment or ambition of every Boy Scout.
Where only such crude means of kindling fire were available it became the custom in some cases to maintain a fire burning continuously in a public place. Around this pyrtaneum the various civil, political, and religious affairs were carried on by the light and warmth of the public fire. Many quaint customs evolved, apparently, from this ancient procedure.