From Friction to Fire



Have you had the chance to watch “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” the animated television series created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko? The narrative centred around Aang, a youthful Avatar gifted with the capability to control (known as “benders”) all four elements – water, earth, fire, and air – with the aim of restoring balance and harmony across the world’s four nations. In one of the episodes, Aang get on a journey alongside Zuko, a young firebender, to learn the ancient origins of firebending at the Sun Warrior temples. Their quest leads them to face the sacred firebending masters, ultimately told as the last surviving dragons in existence: Ran and Shaw. These dragons are revealed as the original ancestors of fire element users, having discovered and taught the nature of fire to humans.

However, sorry to burst your bubble, there weren’t any dragons in real life who discovered fire. According to history books, it was Homo erectus who first figured out how to make and use fire, who presumably exploited one of the foundational aspects of tribology.

Fire principles and human interaction

The “fire triangle” concept, consisting of (a) oxygen, (b) fuel, and (c) heat, serves as a fundamental framework for understanding the conditions necessary for a fire to occur and persist [1]. When these three elements are present and appropriately balanced, a fire naturally ignites and sustains itself. However, disrupting any one of these components can prevent or extinguish the fire. In the natural world, fires can originate from various sources, including lightning strikes and volcanic eruptions. These phenomena demonstrate how fires can occur without human intervention and underscore the importance of understanding fire dynamics [2].

Humanity’s relationship with fire dates back millennia, long before the mastery of fire-making techniques. Early humans discovered the benefits of fire, such as warmth, cooking, and protection, which significantly influenced their survival and evolution. During the Prehistoric Epoch, before 3500 BC, friction emerged as a method for igniting fire by rubbing two pieces of wood together [3]. This ancient technique represents one of the earliest methods employed by humans to harness the power of friction to produce heat and fire.


Figure 1. Fire triangle (left) and making fire as pre-historic activities (right) [4-5]

Friction to start fire, or not?

Do you really need a friction to start a fire? The concept of starting a fire solely through friction may seem straightforward, but the truth is that it involves a combination of factors. While friction indeed generates heat, it’s essential to have the right conditions for that heat to ignite a fire. One critical factor is the presence of flammable materials nearby. Without such materials, the heat generated by friction may not result in a fire. Throughout history, various methods have been developed to utilize friction for fire starting. These methods involve rapidly rubbing solid burnable materials, such as wood against each other or a hard surface. Examples of method include hand drills, two-man friction drills, fire ploughs, pump fire drills, bow drills, fire pistons, and flint and steel [6].

Friction occurs when surfaces come into contact and rub against each other. This rubbing action generates heat because the frictional force performs work, converting energy from the kinetic energy (movement) to the thermal energy (heat) of the surfaces involved. Generally, rougher surfaces generate more heat due to increased friction. For instance, when you rub your hands together dynamically, the molecules in your hands gain kinetic energy, causing them to vibrate and produce thermal energy or heat. Similarly, when rough surfaces are rubbed together, the molecules in those surfaces also vibrate and generate heat energy. This principle illustrates how friction can be utilized to produce heat, which, under the right conditions, can ignite a fire.

Fire inside our pocket

The evolution of fire-starting tools from primitive friction methods to modern matches and lighters has been an interesting journey. Matches and lighters have become necessary tools for easily igniting fires in various settings, from lighting candles to starting campfires. Both matches and lighters operate on the fundamental principle of utilizing friction to generate heat and initiate combustion. In matches, friction between the match head and a striking surface produces the heat needed to ignite the chemicals within the match head. The invention of the match in 1805 by Jean Chancel marked a significant milestone in fire-starting technology [7].

Over time, advancements in match technology led to the development of safer and more reliable, such as the modern striking matches we use today. The history of lighters can be traced back to the 1920s with the innovations of Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner and his ‘Döbereiner’s lamp,’ which paved the way for modern lighters [8]. These devices operate on the principle of generating a spark using mechanisms such as flint and steel or piezoelectricity to ignite the flammable gas or liquid fuel. The composition of matches and lighters involves a combination of chemicals carefully selected to facilitate combustion and ensure safety. These include oxidizing agents to supply oxygen, binders to hold the ingredients together, and inert materials to regulate the reaction and control the burning process.


Figure 2. Friction concept in a match (left) and a lighter (right) [9-10]


Throughout history, friction has played a pivotal role in fire starting, from ancient methods like rubbing wood together (primitive friction methods) to modern innovations such as matches and lighters, showcasing humanity’s adaptability in utilizing natural processes. This fundamental relationship between friction and fire is further underscored by the “fire triangle” concept, which highlights the essential components of oxygen, fuel, and heat necessary for igniting and sustaining fires, emphasizing the importance of understanding fire dynamics. Friction, as a fundamental principle in fire starting, illustrates how the conversion of kinetic energy to thermal energy can ignite fires.


The artwork was illustrated by S. Almagfirah (email) based on an idea by M. Taufiqurrakhman.


  2. Online article: “Wildfires causes: Understanding the flames that devastate“, accessed on 19/04/2024,
  3. Online article: “Tribology History”, accessed on 19/04/2024,
  4. Image “Fire Triangle” by Gustavb, Wikimedia,
  5. Image “Making Fire Vectors” by Vecteezy,
  6. Bradley Duncan, “Lighting a fire using friction requires an understanding of some physics principles − but there are ways to make the process easier”, published December 14, 2023 at The Conversation,
  7. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “match”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 12 Mar. 2024, Accessed 19 April 2024.
  8. History of Matches. “History of Lighters – How Lighter Was Made?”, 2024,,be%20created%20in%20an%20instant
  9. Image “A match uses a chemical reaction to produce a flame” by Tim Oram, Getty Images,
  10. Image “How Do Lighters Work?” by Akash Peshih, Science-ABC,

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