From Reality to Fantasy (Part 2): Ancient Alchemical Fuel and the Inuit Lamp

(Part 2 in a series on how non-fiction can enliven fiction)

A few hundred years from now, authors will be writing historical fiction about the late 20th century, and the incandescent bulb will make an appearance as a quaint antique. Maybe the fluorescent, compact fluorescent, and LED will also be out-of-date.

Take your average medieval or prior fantasy setting. What do you have to work with for lighting? Torches, sconces, braziers, candles. In short, fire, fire, and more fire. Throw in magic as it’s thrown into video games and we can add magic orbs of light, glowing crystals, etc. Get fancy and you might have an underground labyrinth lit by skylights and mirrors that reflect it around. Jars of lightning bugs? Tanks of biolumunescent algae, squid, or fish? That gives me a …

Worldbuilding Idea: how about a common fish whose bioluminescent headstone keeps bright for years and which fisherman procure for the lighting of their society? Maybe it catches sunlight during the day and exudes it when the sun goes down. Maybe it has to be recharged by being lain outside on sunny days. A handful of stones can be put in glass or held in the hand to provide non-smoky, quality light.

That idea comes from my head and a middle-school or lower level of biology. But as I set out to prove in this series, a little research can yield wonders. The real world is much more interesting and creative than my unaided brain.

Today, I’ll talk about things for antiquity and medieval settings. Next time, I’ll get to the steampunk stuff.

Ancient Kerosene: Not all “alchemy of the ancients” was total nonsense. Some of it was practical chemistry, truly magic at the time. According to the Kitab al-Asrar (“Book of Secrets” in Arabic, how’s that for a book title?), people in the Arab world were using alembics to create kerosene (paraffin) from surface deposits of crude oil. How a person would figure out to use ammonium chloride as an absorbent, then distill the stuff over and over again until it looked like water (high-grade kerosene, basically rocket fuel) is one of those mysteries of the ancient world. Or again that people in other areas of the Middle East would figure out to heat rocks of oil shale to extract the oil, then distill it for lighting fuel shows the same kind of genius from which our numerals 0-9 originate. Now, that’s alchemy, and through chemistry you can get kerosene lights in medieval fantasy if you so choose. Check out Wikipedia and for more.

Anbig 001

Inuit Lamp: Ever heard of a kudlik? Neither had I. It is an Inuit device for heating, lighting, cooking, drying clothes, and yielding potable water from snow and ice. Sounds pretty ingenious, right? This device is made of soapstone, looks like some cross between a candle and the filament of a lightbulb, and burns blubber from whales or seals. The wick is made from types of arctic grass and moss. If it could work for the Inuit, I’d say we could make it work for fantasy in Nordic regions as well. See more on Anthropolis and Wikipedia.

Here is a video from some intrepid campers using a kudlik while camping in a snow cave:

One reason why I write steampunk stories or fantasy in a 19th century setting is because there is just so much more to play with. Next time, I’ll post some awesome lights from the 1800s.

-Bradley Verdell


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