Burning Tech
Brandon Kirkpatrick, Division 3, Graduate school

In order to begin to answer the question of what is my most important piece of technology, first we must define what technology is. Its most basic definition according to Merriam-Webster, technology is the practical application of knowledge, or rather, putting something one knows into practice.

Typically, this question would be answered with ideas of electronics and current gizmos that users can hold in their hands and command to process data at ever increasing speeds, however, when considering the definition, the most important piece of technology for both my family, myself, and future generations is slightly more historic.

The ability to create fire is the most important piece of technology for everyone on this planet and shortly, I plan to explain why this is my most important technology and should be listed for everyone else as well. On a global and historic scale, fire is responsible for most every major technological advance in human history. The application and control of fire laid the foundation for current society and continue to drive society forward.

Starting with the Classic Bronze Age circa 3000 B.C. and extending into the Classic Iron Age, which ended circa 300 A.C., the technology of fire allowed for the expansion of hunting and agriculture by way of allowing for the improvement of tools and weapons. The transition from simple chipped stone or bone tools lashed around wooden shafts to stronger metal tools greatly increased efficiency during those times at survival chores. Keeping families fed was and remains a basic necessity and the ability to complete those tasks more efficiently is not dissimilar to how tractors revolutionized modern agriculture techniques and production. Without increased efficiency in hunting, gathering, and farming, no abundance of food would have existed. Without the ability for one family member to provide a substantial amount of food for the rest of the family, the increase in local village populations would not have led to human civilization expansion on the scale it did.

With the technology that fire helped create, humans were led into the Renaissance after the Middle Ages. While libraries had previously been built to catalog thousands of years of knowledge into one place, paying scribes to hand write books was exorbitantly priced and could only be afforded the very wealthy or governments themselves. It was during the Renaissance that a goldsmith from Germany, Johannes Gutenberg, developed the printing press that revolutionized our world forever with tools only made available by the technology of fire. Books and learning, while still expensive, would become much more accessible to people and skyrocketed learning to an entirely new level. We rarely connect the technology of fire to being able to pick up a book and read it, but without fire, both the printing press and the man who developed it likely would have never existed.

Continuing with our march through history, without fire, the technology used to discover or explore new worlds via sea travel would have been impossible. The application of fire was used to develop everything from woodworking tools used to saw, cut, and chisel out different parts of ships during their production, to crafting sextants and similar devices used in ship navigation. The technology developed to store food, water, and beer in barrels bound by iron rings were also extensions of fire and absolutely necessary for any extended journey. Without the ability to eat and drink over what was typically a 60-day trip across the Atlantic Ocean during the Christopher Columbus era, how many millions of people would not even exist today? The people who attempted to cross without food and water certainly would not have survived.

While all of these are great and true, how exactly does that make fire as a technology most important to me? Aside from making my life possible, which is vitally important to me, fire, as a technology, is responsible for much of our post-modern world and is responsible for the manner in which it functions.

Imagine for a moment living without a cell phone, or a refrigerator, or even air conditioning. Those luxuries are fantastic that make our world easier to live in and doing without them seems difficult to imagine. Now imagine if electricity didn’t exist altogether. My grandfather grew up in a house that had no running water or electricity and while living without electricity certainly is possible, without fire, the luxuries of light bulbs, televisions, computers, and online college classes would be nonexistent because the ability to generate electricity on the scale we know and love today would be impossible. The burning of coal and natural gas accounted for more than 60% of the electricity generation in the United States in 2016. Regardless of your philosophy on fossil fuels, the fact remains that two thirds of our electricity requirements are fulfilled due solely to the technology of fire and every other renewable resource used to generate electricity on a national scale are produced only because the technology of fire.

The technology of fire has not only impacted all of civilization in the technologies it made available from the bronze age up to today, but we also have the ability to utilize the primitive technology of fire itself in our daily lives. Barbecue is a definitive passion of mine and applying the knowledge of what fire is and does to the practicality of cooking is something I thoroughly enjoy, much more so than cooking in a kitchen over an electric burner. Whether I spend 16 hours slow smoking a brisket to that mouth watering taste where the fat has rendered to a more liquid state suspended within a thick cut of meat or I use a cast iron pot to cook a pot of beans over the open flames the technology of fire is amazing in all it can do.

Not only does the technology of fire allow people who know how to utilize it to feed themselves, it brings people together today just as it has for centuries to live, laugh and love. The region in which I live, barbecue is a culture all its own. There are right and wrong ways to do things. There are ‘cheaters’ who finish food in the oven and there are traditionalists that refuse to use gas. There are young pitmasters who are just getting started and there are stalwarts who have been around for decades. At either end of the spectrum the singular point of intersection is practically applying the knowledge of fire to the evolving state of food.

As shown above, fire has transformative properties. It can turn something as hard as a rock into something liquid or pliable. It can emit light or destroy wood. It can turn a primitive civilization into a planet of people that can conquer the solar system. Ultimately, fire can bring people together to eat, drink, and be merry. Fire is the ultimate technology and that is why it is the most important to me.

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