Remarkable History, Geography, & Science Behind the Fire Piston


I promised a post with information for the purpose of introducing various subjects for those teaching some of the science, geography, and history of fire pistons. This is not very academic, but maybe it will point those interested in the right direction. My transparent piston lend themselves best to attracting attention because you can see the actual flash of ignition when slamming the piston into the cylinder. Anyway, this post is primarily directed at teachers who want to use the transparent fire piston as a teaching aid.


These things continue to fascinate me. No one can know for sure the origin of the fire piston as a method for starting fire because it happened long ago in the annals of prehistory. Someone probably discovered it first, but who know who. That it has been discovered multiple times independent of one another is also possible. Whether it was first used hundreds of years ago, or thousands of years ago, we can’t know. The best indications, and they are only indications, is that this technology–I don’t know what else to call it, because it was very advanced for the times–came into use in the bamboo cultures within the bamboo prolific jungles of roughly what we ow call South East Asia. It could have been one of the several Philippine Islands, or Vietnam. Or maybe Thailand is the most plausible location, since there is where some who should know, thought to be the cradle of civilization for that part of the world. We can guess, study, and speculate. We don’t know.

Wherever it happened, it was a remarkable event–or chain of unlikely events that led up the the actual first embers being created. I am guessing that it was spawned by observation of phenomenon that happened while the discover(s) were engaged in some other purposeful necessary or useful activity. The science of such phenomenon is profound. It is hard to conceive of anyone just randomly stumbling these. It is in fact hard to conceive anyone setting out to create or discover these. Maybe sophisticated aliens or angels  brought it to mankind as a gift to ease life as the premier fire-starting method in these damp climates less-inclined to other primitive methods.

My elementary Stab at some of the Science and History behind the Fire Piston

The science is sophisticated–as are the mathematics involved–whether designed by or derived from this nifty thing-a-ma-jig. I can call it that. But it has been called many things. Fire Piston, Fire Syringe, Fire Rod, Fire Stick, Slam Rod, and Wham-bam to name a few. Some of the grander names of the phenomenon employed and best taught and understood by use of the fire piston include the transfer of energy, kinetic theory, and Charles’ law. The equations and mathematics associated with these are beyond the scope of this brief post, but they are fascinating and easily found or researched online. They are common and old-hat to physics, diesel mechanics, air-conditioning designers, and others involved in compression principles, most specifically compression ignition.

For those people and doubly-so for those less-familiar with such sciences, fire pistons offer amazing–seemingly magical, even unimaginable, and barely explainable, maybe. Or from other worlds inexplicable demonstrations of fire making technology equal to the most sophisticated technology available today–right out of prehistory. Or maybe out of this world.

Charles’ Law

Charles’ Law was discovered and recorded by a Frenchman shortly after the turn of the 19th Century. His name was Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac. So what’s up with his discovery being called Charles’ Law. In his scientific paper Gay-Lussac apparently credited an earlier observation told by a French balloonist by the name of Charles for inspiring his thermodynamic discovery. The balloonist was of some renown for inventing the Hydrogen balloon and taking a historic ride aloft. Maybe Gay-Lussac felt that the reference would add punch to his own discovery. Anyway, Charles’ Law regarding the behavior of gases, is one Law that helps understand and explain why a fire piston works.

It shows the relationship between volume of various gasses including those that comprise air while under pressure and its temperature when the pressure remains constant–or more pertinent to fire piston function–when pressure quickly changes–if everything else remains constant. That’s my layman’s stab at it.Let me stab harder.

If the volume decreases, so does the temperature. When the volume increases, so does the temperature.

A Law such as this is something you accept as a working truth–whether it is or not–to help facilitate understanding of the way things work. We may not understand exactly why a law works. I don’t know why science is so thought to be sacrosanct; it is very much like religion. Certain things you must just accept as “the way it is” on, well, something that very much resembles what people of faith call, Faith. So, to move on and understand more stuff, we simply must at least for the moment accept this Law as truth. So it is with Charles Law. It is what it is.

And this IS where it gets interesting. Using this law, it follows that when the temperature is increased, and the gas stays in a constant confined space, the expanding gas molecules move faster and bump into the sides of whatever is containing them. Within the cylinder of a fire piston, this is caused to happen in a brief instant making them collide more than usual at super high speeds. This action increases the gas pressure, and as per Charles’ Law the temperature also increases. But it increases for only that split second, because as they hit the sides of the containment, the sides are stretched. This gives the molecules more room to move, resulting in them slowing down, which reduces the pressure, and reduces their collisions with the container sides. And sure to the attributes dictated by Charles’ Law, as the pressure goes down, so does the temperature within the containment.

Another application of the law, although not stated as such, would intuitively follow, that if the volume of the container gets bigger, the pressure would decrease, because the molecules have more room to move around. Charles Law does not specifically allow for this scenario, because the space remains constant. But again, intuitively,  it would follow that such an action would cause greater energy to be given up as the molecules obey the attributes of this physical law.

In everyday lingo we say something’s gotta give. And it does. The molecules give up this kinetic (or stored) energy as heat when they seek the equilibrium they normally enjoy. Temperature goes way up inside the fire piston cylinder for just that brief instant when molecules struggle to go farther and keep their environment normal. Wow! did that make any sense at all?

Neither am I a mathematician, but there is a mathematical relationship that can be used to expressed what happens inside the fire piston during that slam-fire instant. The relationship of two values,  Volume and Temperature, and their effect upon a third value, Pressure–all involved in this law–are expressed as being directly proportional.

That is, when one goes up, so does the other.

A concise mathematical equation of Charles Law expresses this relationship as:

V/T = k, or,Volume divided by  Temperature is equal to the Pressure, if the Pressure remains constant.

Stated another way, T=Vk, with the verbal equivalent being something like:

If the Pressure is increased on a constant Volume, the Temperature will also predictably increase.

In the case of a fire piston, as the piston is quickly slammed into the cylinder, that same given constant Volume of air is pressed into a smaller space, which creates greater Pressure. This action in turn results in increased Temperature inside the container as the molecules are jarred into higher than normal activity, bouncing them around off sides of the cylinder with greater velocity and more frequently–until the compressed volume stretches the sides and makes room for them to adjust to the smaller space.

These molecules thereby give up some of their kinetic energy during this super-active instant. Within the confined space, the temperature rises sharply to over 400 degrees F. I am merely repeating this, but it can be precisely calculated mathematically if we know the values for the cylinder Volume of the container and the value of the Pressure. I don’t, so I am going to take someone else’s word for it.

Anyway, the heat energy transfer ignites the tinder contained in the small tinder pocket space within the cylinder and wal-la, an ember is produced. If the ignited tinder is allowed to breath more Oxygen, by quickly removing it back out into open air, it keeps burning and can be coddled and nursed to create, as my six year old granddaughter once said, a real fire.

I can’t think of anywhere that this chain of events occurs naturally. No doubt, a reader will inform me of some such obscure conditions where this does occur naturally, but I can’t think of any. This is part of the fascination I hold for the advent of fire pistons. What chain of events led some prehistoric human(s) to learn enough about this complex phenomenon, that they would consciously invent a devise that would artificially harness it for the purpose of portability and easily making fire at their own time, will, and pleasure. Blows my mind. The fire piston may be one of the most amazing inventions ever.

Hint from a Bicycle Pump

Of course these primitive inventors or artisans did not have bicycles–much less, bicycle tire pumps. But I do. Even as a young kid trying to ge the most out of old hand-me-down bicycle tires, I noticed that when I pumped air into a tire, that when it became harder to push the pump piston down into the cylinder and I really bore down on the handle to push that last bit of air into the tire and the air was pushing back–something odd happened. With each increasingly hard stroke of the pump, the metal bottom of he pump cylinder, sometimes held in place by my bare foot, became too hot to keep my foot there. I am considering that this may have also been at least a partial application of Charles’ Law.

This experience provides a insight into how doing one thing may accidentally lead to the discovery of another thing, more specifically one possible origin scenario of the fire pistons inception.

Back to the Jungle

I can only imagine Tabucaqui, the head of the ancestral trade clan and recognized village artisan crafter of things bamboo, living somewhere in the jungles or rain forests where some of the hundreds of varieties of bamboo were not only plentiful, but had become necessary over mellinia, as necessary for survival with everything from shelter and shoots of vegan food to hunting meat and for conquest and defense–and for entertainment. Flutes and lutes and chimes, walls, beds, stretchers, rafts, swings, slides, snorkles, spears, arrows, bows, traps for animals and fish and humans. Mouth-driven blowguns and pressure driven pop-guns.

Artisan secrets for smoothing and removing and plugging and controlling holes and joints to manipulate the flow of air in a hundred distinct ways learned and passed on and added to for generations. One section inside another. Adeptly fit. A slide of a whistle. A pitch control for a musical instrument with a plug of this and a string of that with a gob of tallow or pice of fat or the oil from a special fruit of a common tree. A gasket for a moveable slide to bend or change the note for music or ceremony or snare a bird or trick an enemy or push a dart.

Slam! Bam! Thank you Sam-Butuqiwabee! What? Wait! What! Smoke? ?? Lemme see kimasabewabe–trydatta gan! Slam. Bam. Smoke. Shazam!! PapaD-Wabba. Gee. Look-iee. What up with dat? Letmme see, Sam. Wham-Bam. Sha-zamm!

Fuzz from the Tukas Tree

My friend Pierre Coutu of Stone Tinder product fame taught me something about the use of fire pistons in those places of its likely origin. The Tukas Tree produces a fuzz that is used in these tropical bamboo climes to catch sparks to start a fires. It is today used in native produced fire pistons. It has an amazingly low ignition temperature. This stuff will light up a fire piston when nothing else will. It grows prolifically in South East Asia. My friend sent me some so I could experience it firsthand. It’s amazing. Tukas fuzz will make an ember in the most basic and primitive bamboo or wooden fire piston when nothing else will.

Stars and planets aligned–or were aligned as a gift from Heaven. Whether by angel or by inspiration. Isn’t it really the same?

It could happen. It must have. Eat your heart out, Charles.




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