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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Francis Galton   28 May [1854]1

Down Bromley Kent

May 28th

My dear Galton

I heartily wish I could give you a spark of information on lighting fires worth your having.—2 I know nothing of myself. But FitzRoy in his voyage (vol 2 p. 187)3 says the Fuegians procure a spark with two stones, usually Iron pyrites, “which received among tinder & then whisked round in the air, soon kindles into a flame. The tinder used is the inner down of birds well dried; very fine dry moss; or a dry kind of fungus found on the under side of half-rotten-trees.”

I have seen the Iron pyrites in the possession of the savages.

You may remember the apparatus which was made, & I believe used, to light mines in order to avoid explosion of gas, viz a steel wheel revolving, & rubbed against iron-pyrites: & this was said to produce quite a fair light.— I do not know where I read the description.—

I have got some most vague idea I have heard that the wool of the leaves of the Mullein or Verbascum serves as tinder.

I remember that the finely triturated dust of the wood of the Hibiscus produced by the friction of the wood, in the Tahitian fashion of getting fire, acted as tinder, & the accumulation of this fibrous dust was said to be an important part of operation.

I am very much surprised at FitzRoy’s statement of down of Birds serving: would it not be well to try that of some water Bird, as of Duck or Goose.—

I wish I cd. have given better information.—

Your’s most sincerely | Ch Darwin


1854 is the most likely year for this letter as the information was probably requested by Galton for use in writing The art of travel (Galton 1855), which has a chapter on ‘Fire’ with the first section: ‘To obtain a Spark’. Galton was in England only between March and 6 August 1854 before the publication of Galton 1855. A copy of Galton 1855 is in the Darwin Library–CUL; it is inscribed, ‘Charles Darwin Esqr. With the best regards of the Author.’ and contains annotations by CD. The book was sent to CD soon after publication (see letter to Francis Galton, 1 January [1855]).
Galton 1855, pp. 16–22, discusses the ways of lighting fires out in the bush. CD’s statement that bones were occasionally used as tinder in the Falkland Islands (Journal of researches, p. 251) is mentioned, but the information given in this letter is absent. There was no significant difference in Galton’s text in subsequent editions of Galton 1855.
Narrative 2: 187–8. The passage CD quotes (p. 187) is marked in his copy of the book in the Cambridge University Library.


Discusses how Fuegians and other primitive peoples light fires.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Francis Galton
Sent from
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1881,” accessed on 28 April 2017,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 5