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Sheet Iron tinderboxes. English, 18th and early 19th C. Old tinderboxes.jpg
Sheet Iron tinderboxes. English, 18th and early 19th C.
Pocket tinderbox with firesteel and flint. This type was used during the Boer War due to a scarcity of matches Tinderbox.jpg
Pocket tinderbox with firesteel and flint. This type was used during the Boer War due to a scarcity of matches

A tinderbox, or patch box, is a container made of wood or metal containing flint, firesteel, and tinder (typically charcloth, but possibly a small quantity of dry, finely divided fibrous matter such as hemp), used together to help kindle a fire. A tinderbox may also contain sulfur-tipped matches.


Tinderboxes fell out of general usage when friction matches were invented.

History and use

Throughout prehistoric Europe flint and iron pyrites (commonly known as fool's gold) were struck against one another in order to create a spark for firelighting. As an example, Ötzi (the natural mummy of a man who lived some time between 3350 and 3105 BC, discovered in September 1991) was found with tinder fungus along with flint and pyrite for creating sparks.

With the development of iron ore smelting in the Iron Age, the firesteel eventually replaced pyrites. [1] This was simply a piece of carbon steel (it is difficult to obtain sparks with ordinary iron), which was usually wrought into a 'D' shape, or an oval ring, so that it could be conveniently looped around two or three fingers for striking. The flint was sometimes chipped to provide a suitably sharp edge to obtain a spark and if necessary other hard stones, such as quartzite, chert or chalcedony could be substituted. [2]

The charcloth was fabric made from vegetable fibre (e.g. cotton, linen, or jute) which had previously been charred via pyrolysis, giving it the low ignition temperature and slow burning characteristics suitable for use as tinder. Rotten wood, known as touchwood, was also used, as well as amadou, which was a tinder prepared from fungus steeped in potassium nitrate (saltpetre) and dried. [3]

In use the flint was struck in a vigorous downward motion against the steel, sending a shower of sparks into the tinder which was arranged in the bottom of the box. The sparks (actually pieces of burning steel broken off by the harder flint) created very small embers as they fell onto the charcloth, the glow of which, with some gentle blowing, would be enough to ignite a sulfur tipped wooden splint. The splint could then be carried to a candle, often set in a holder on the top of the box, and finally the cloth would be extinguished with a damper to preserve it for further use. [4] With skill, a fire could be started in under a minute, but at other times it took longer and occasionally a tiny pinch of gunpowder was added to encourage the process. [5]

Wooden tinderbox with separate compartments for the firesteel, flint etc. and tinder. English or Welsh, 18th C. Wooden tinderbox with fire steel and flint.jpg
Wooden tinderbox with separate compartments for the firesteel, flint etc. and tinder. English or Welsh, 18th C.

When away from home small pocket tinderboxes were often carried, sometimes set with a burning glass (a magnifying lens) in the lid to light the tinder directly from the sun's rays. [6] The poorer people working in the fields would obtain a light by simply striking a flint on the back of a knife onto a piece of touchpaper that they carried in their pockets. [5]

The tinder pistol, based on the flintlock mechanism, was a more expensive alternative to the tinderbox and was in use in middle and upper-class homes in the 18th century. In the early 19th century a more efficient tinderbox was invented with a rotating metal wheel to create the sparks [4] and there were other more experimental devices available, such as the fire piston and the instantaneous light box. [6]

A London street seller of matches for tinderboxes in 1821 Match seller.jpg
A London street seller of matches for tinderboxes in 1821

In the 18th and early 19th century tinderboxes were in common use, but with the advent of John Walker's 'friction lights' in 1827, where a match could be struck by withdrawing it from a piece of folded glass paper, tinderboxes increasingly became obsolete. [6] [7] A book from 1881 [8] notes that in 1834 a magazine editor had predicted [9] that despite the advent of 'lucifers' (friction matches), the tinderbox would continue to be in general use in the household, but that in fact, by the time of writing, the tinderbox had become rare, expensive and was commonly seen only in museums of antiquities. Another book from 1889 describes such a tinderbox, [10] observing that the wear patterns on the flint were the same as those on ancient prehistoric flints in the collection. [11]

As metaphor

In conventional usage, the term "tinderbox" refers to something that is so dry that it could catch on fire with the slightest provocation, perhaps even spontaneously like a forest fire. It is also used to describe a potentially volatile or violent situation. For instance, a prison in which there is unrest and the potential for a riot could be said to be 'a tinderbox of violence'. [12]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Flint</span> Cryptocrystalline form of the mineral quartz

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Match</span> Device for lighting fires

A match is a tool for starting a fire. Typically, matches are made of small wooden sticks or stiff paper. One end is coated with a material that can be ignited by friction generated by striking the match against a suitable surface. Wooden matches are packaged in matchboxes, and paper matches are partially cut into rows and stapled into matchbooks. The coated end of a match, known as the match "head", consists of a bead of active ingredients and binder, often colored for easier inspection. There are two main types of matches: safety matches, which can be struck only against a specially prepared surface, and strike-anywhere matches, for which any suitably frictional surface can be used.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wheellock</span> Firearm action

A wheellock, wheel-lock, or wheel lock is a friction-wheel mechanism which creates a spark that causes a firearm to fire. It was the next major development in firearms technology after the matchlock and the first self-igniting firearm. Its name is from its rotating steel wheel to provide ignition. Developed in Europe around 1500, it was used alongside the matchlock and later the snaplock (1540s), the snaphance (1560s), and the flintlock.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tinder</span> Combustible material used to ignite fire by rudimentary methods

Tinder is easily combustible material used to start a fire. Tinder is a finely divided, open material which will begin to glow under a shower of sparks. Air is gently wafted over the glowing tinder until it bursts into flame. The flaming tinder is used to ignite kindling, which in turn is used to ignite the bulk material, to produce a fire.

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The flintlock mechanism is a type of lock used on muskets, rifles, and pistols from the early 17th to the mid-19th century. It is commonly referred to as a "flintlock". The term is also used for the weapons themselves as a whole, and not just the lock mechanism.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Amadou</span> Spongy material derived from fungi

Amadou is a spongy material derived from Fomes fomentarius and similar fungi that grow on the bark of coniferous and angiosperm trees, and have the appearance of a horse's hoof. It is also known as the "tinder fungus" and is useful for starting slow-burning fires. The fungus must be removed from the tree, the hard outer layer scraped off, and then thin strips of the inner spongy layer cut for use as tinder.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fire making</span> Process of starting a fire artificially

Fire making, fire lighting or fire craft is the process of artificially starting a fire. It requires completing the fire triangle, usually by heating tinder above its autoignition temperature.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Snaplock</span>

A snaplock is a type of lock for firing a gun or is a gun fired by such a lock.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ferrocerium</span> Pyrophoric alloy whose primary components are cerium and iron

Ferrocerium is a synthetic pyrophoric alloy of mischmetal hardened by blending in oxides of iron and/or magnesium. When struck with a harder material, the mixture produces hot sparks that can reach temperatures of 3,315 °C (6,000 °F) when rapidly oxidized by the process of striking the rod. Striking both scrapes fragments off, exposing them to the oxygen in the air, and easily ignites them by friction heat due to cerium's remarkably low ignition temperature of between 150 and 180 °C.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Char cloth</span> Type of tinder made from natural fibres via pyrolysis

Char cloth, also called char paper, is a material with low ignition temperature, used as tinder when lighting a fire. It is the main component in a tinderbox. It is a small swatch of fabric made from a natural fibre that has been converted through pyrolysis.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Feather stick</span>

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Spark (fire)</span> Incandescent particle

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Glossary of firelighting</span>

This is an alphabetized glossary of terms pertaining to lighting fires, along with their definitions. Firelighting is the process of starting a fire artificially. Fire was an essential tool in early human cultural development. The ignition of any fire, whether natural or artificial, requires completing the fire triangle, usually by initiating the combustion of a suitably flammable material.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chuckmuck</span>

A chuckmuck is a belt-hung leather and metal decorated tinder pouch with an attached thin long striking plate, found across North Asia and China to Japan from at least the 17th century. Chuckmucks form a well-marked group within flint-and-steel types of fire-lighting kit, still used as jewellery amongst Tibetans (mechag) and Mongolians (kete). This large distinctive style of a worldwide daily utensil was noted in Victorian British India and the 1880s Anglo-Indian word chuckmuck was adopted into specialist English by the early 20th century.


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