The Fire Piston — Great Old New Idea

Cocobolo and brass fire piston

Cocobolo and brass fire piston by Podknox at http://www.flickr.com/photos/91198056@N00/3028232520

Initially I was skeptical. It seemed like a new idea that somebody whipped up in their basement workshop, far away from field conditions where it surely wouldn’t work. Then I did some research, and now I’m a convert.

The fire piston is one of those ancient technological concepts that’s too advanced to be credible. How any indigenous inventor could come up with this concept without knowing the principles of compression and hydraulics is beyond imagination–except that many so-called primitive cultures use blowguns, and are interested in heat, and if while you were making a blowgun you noticed something unusual, well, you’d be likely to check that out. Hence, the fire piston, common firestarter of the native peoples of Indonesia and the Polynesian Islands.

If you’ve pumped up a bicycle tire you’ve noticed that the pump gets warm–that’s the concept. Compressing air makes heat. If you compress air really quickly, and have a little tinder in the chamber when you do that, you have fire. Not a spectacular fire, but a little glowing coal of carbon that any skilled firemaker can coax into a blaze. All you add is tinder and a little bit of air.

Making these yourself is possible, but it’s the kind of thing that requires lots of tries before you get anything that works. Cheap models that you buy often fall into that same category of stuff that’s almost right. Buy one that’s machined and built of brass and o-rings and you’ll get one that lasts and works reliably. Buy one made of wood and wrapped with a thread gasket, and you have trouble.

Totally fascinating idea, if you like old ways of doing things and are willing to combine new technology with them to make things better. Probably not quite so reliable as spark ignitors–if you get water into a fire piston you’re pretty well screwed for awhile. A wet blast match works if you just rub it dry. To me, the fire piston is worth the trouble of learning something new, if just for the satisfaction of having done something cool.

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