Taming fire was humankind’s first and most critical step toward its mastery of the material world. About 400,000 years ago, our ancestors learned to harness the flame, setting us on the course that would lead from the stone hearths those early humans built to the modern high-efficiency catalytic woodstoves we use today. More important, though, was the capacity to selectively apply heat, a transformative power that allows us to turn dirt into metal, cold into warmth, dark into light.
Skip ahead some 399,000 years to the 12th century for the invention that truly domesticated the light and heat that has sustained us: the chimney. Up to this point, dwellings in cold-weather lands like Europe were one-room manor houses with communal fires and smoke holes in their roofs. The chimney suddenly made multiroom buildings not just possible but comfortable, because different rooms—each with an independently controlled fire—could now be dedicated to single uses like cooking, eating, and sleeping.
But across the millennia what Shakespeare called “the smoky light that’s fed with stinking tallow” changed not at all. Fire was dirty, smelly, and dangerous; usually born out of some type of friction, it always burned some form of organic matter, usually wood or animal fat. The Cro-Magnon who carved the little lamps of limestone and charred animal fat that illuminated the cave drawings at Lascaux 17,000 years ago would have had little trouble understanding the essential nature of a whale-oil lamp lighting the 1700s home of a Nantucket Quaker.
But in the 1880s, a worthy challenge to fire’s reign finally arrived: the orange glow of the incandescent electric lightbulb. It was sold as being cheaper and safer than gas or oil lighting, and the quick embrace of Edison’s bulb was staggering: Between 1893 and 1901, New York City went from having 1,500 electric street lamps to over 17,000. The 1905 development of nichrome—an alloy of nickel and chromium that produces a great deal of heat when electrified—made practical the development of electric cooking and heating units. The kitchen fire now had a rival too. Within a few months, the stovetop bread toaster would be replaced by the electric toaster; a few years later, everything from waffle irons to coffee percolators to ovens and ranges were being run on electricity. In the space of 60 years, using fire to cook, heat, or create light became symbolic of backwardness and poverty, and for a while in the mid-20th century, the phrase “all-electric kitchen” was actually a selling point.
Yet even though we have no pressing need for fire in the home anymore, we’re loath to part with it. Whether the candle mania of the 1970s or the hearth-heavy McMansions of the 1990s, we refuse to wave goodbye to fire’s crackle and luminosity. Perhaps it’s because fire is one of the few surviving links to our ancient selves that is neither socially unacceptable nor legally off-limits. And as radically inefficient as fire is for lighting in the 21st century, we still spend $2 billion on candles each year. Forget the ear-busting stereo system—a wood-fired pizza oven just might be a home’s coup de grâce. More prosaically, some 16.9 million backyard grills were shipped in 2009. And, most basic of all, the presence of the letter salad “Wrkng fireplce” in a real estate ad still turns up the heat.