Fire eating is the act of putting a flaming object into the mouth and extinguishing it. A fire eater can be an entertainer, a street performer, part of a sideshow or a circus act but has also been part of spiritual tradition in India.
Fire eating relies on the quick extinction of the fire in the mouth or on the touched surfaces and on the short term cooling effects of water evaporation at the surface on the source of fire (usually with a low percentage of alcohol mixed in the water) or saliva in the mouth. This allows for igniting a damp handkerchief or a bill of money without it burning. Closing the mouth, or covering it with a slap of the hand cuts off the oxygen to the fire. Blowing on it can remove the very thin area of reaction from the source of fuel, and thus extinguish the fire in some cases, where the blown air is faster than the fire front and the flame is small enough to be entirely removed.
The flame itself is not a cold flame, and the performers do not use any other material besides the fuel. Certain materials are avoided when doing the trick, such as materials which may easily ignite, melt or store the heat and release it later. These include paraffin candles, plastic, and thick multithreaded rope.
History and hazards
Fire eating was a common part of Hindu, Sadhu, and Fakir performances to show spiritual attainment. It became a part of the standard sideshow acts in the late 1880s and was often seen as one of the entry-level skills for sideshow performers, although skilled fire performers, such as those who can use the difficult and dangerous vapor transfers and produce large breaths of fire are regarded as equals in the circus community for their skill and devotion to their art.
Other than sound fire safety precautions and some practical advice regarding the laws of physics (i.e. "hot air rises"), there are few secrets to eating fire. Torches do not burn with "cold flames" nor is there any special substance in the performer's mouth other than saliva. It is instead the cutting off of the oxygen from the flame which extinguishes it and the evaporation of saliva with the water in the alcoholic solution which keeps the nearby surfaces cool while it is still burning. Even so, according to Daniel Mannix's 1951 sideshow memoir Step right up!, the real "secret" to fire eating is enduring pain; he mentions that tolerating constant blisters on your tongue, lips and throat is also necessary. Many other fire eaters dismiss this, claiming that a skilled fire eater should not burn themselves. The most common method of safely performing fire eating acts relies on the fact that it takes time to transfer heat, and that heat rises in air. Fire eating and fire breathing (and all variants) is a skill which should be passed on from a skilled master to an appropriate student and almost all teachings include instructions on first aid, fire safety, chemistry and other appropriate skills. Accidental ingestion of fuel or improper technique can lead to a serious condition known as fire eater's pneumonia.
Famous fire eaters
A famous fire eater from the 18th century was Robert Powell who allegedly not only swallowed fire but also red-hot coals, melted sealing wax and even brimstone. He performed, often in front of British and other European royalty and nobility, for nearly sixty years and, in 1751, was awarded a purse of gold and a large silver medal.
Although not the earliest, the first to attract the attention of the upper classes was an Englishman named Richardson, who first performed in France in 1667. His methods were subsequently made public by his servant.
Guinness World Records
The most torches extinguished in one minute with the mouth (using multiple rods) is 99 and was achieved by Bret Pasek (U.S.) at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival in Shakopee, Minnesota, on 7 September 2014.
The longest duration fire torch teething is 3 minutes 38.39 seconds and was achieved by Alexander Spitfire (U.S.) at Circo Draconum's Draco's Inferno in Hell's Kitchen Lounge Newark, New Jersey on August 30, 2015.
While trick categories (vapor, transfers, extinguishes, etc.) are recognized by most, it is important to note that specific trick names may vary greatly depending on the region of the world in which the student learned.
Vapor tricks use the fuel vapors held in the mouth during or before an extinguish.
- Cigarette light – light a cigarette with a Human Candle
- Human candle – slowly feed a candle sized flame with vapors you hold
- Vapor transfer – ignite one torch with the vapor from another
- Moonshot – shoot vapors straight up
- Fiery Kiss - Small amounts of fuel on the palm of the hand is ignited by a vapor pull, creating the effect of the performer blowing a kiss of fire.
Transfers are methods of moving a flame from one area to another, by using the body, or another surface or medium.
- Body transfers – transfer the flame from one torch to the other with parts of your body, e.g. arm, leg, chest, buttocks, toes etc.
- Finger transfer – transfer the flame from one torch to the other with your fingers (most common form of transfer)
- Fire floor transfer – transfer the flame from one torch to the other on the floor
- Tongue transfer – transfer the flame from one torch to the other with your tongue
Extinguishes are methods of extinguishing torches, and are the traditional hallmark of fire eating.
- The Blow Out – Using breath control to extinguish
- Multiple fire eat – basic fire eat with several torches at once
- Flaming cotton ball extinguish – put out a cotton ball as you would a torch
- Hand snuff – put the torch out by snuffing it with your hand
- Jellyfish extinguish – pull the torch down out of the flame to extinguish it
- Teething – hold a lit torch by the wick in your teeth
- Immolation – passing any part of the body through the flame
- Retention – Holding a lit fire torch by your hand with the lit wick within your mouth for an extended period of time
- Straight snuff – Fire eating whilst keeping your head level
- Tongue rest – Letting the lit wick of a fire torch rest on the tongue
- Shotgun – lighting a trail of fuel on the body to light an unlit fire torch.
- Slow burn – Very slowly dragging a lit fire torch on the skin
- Why alcohol burns and does not ignite in Classic Chemistry Demonstrations published by the Royal Society of Chemistry. (Google Books)
- Why does a candle blow out when we blow on it? (Answer on Stack Exchange physics questions site)
- Fire eating instructions including instructions repeatedly stressing the importance of an attending experienced skilled master, and giving instructions as to the recommended materials to be used. (juggling.org website)
- Blitz' book of magic and fire eating made easy, Library of Congress catalog first published in 1880. (Following a series of books published since 1875)
- Saraf, S. "Fire-breathing burn". Indian Dermatol Online J. 3: 73–4. doi:10.4103/2229-5178.93491. PMC . PMID 23130274.
- Safety for Fire Eating and Contact Fire (Retrieved from the MIT students portal)
- Miracle Mongers and their Methods, Houdini: particularly chapters II, V, VI . Retrieved on 2008-06-12
- "Hot Meals", The Every-day Book and Table Book; or, Everlasting Calendar of Popular Amusements, Sports, Pastimes, Ceremonies, Manners, Customs, and Events, Each of the Three Hundred and Sixty-Five Days, in Past and Present Times; Forming a Complete History of the Year, Months, and Seasons, and a Perpetual Key to the Almanac, Including Accounts of the Weather, Rules for Health and Conduct, Remarkable and Important Anecdotes, Facts, and Notices, in Chronology, Antiquities, Topography, Biography, Natural History, Art, Science, and General Literature; Derived from the Most Authentic Sources, and Valuable Original Communication, with Poetical Elucidations, for Daily Use and Diversion. Vol III., ed. William Hone, (London: 1838) p 314-16. Retrieved on 2008-06-12
- "Fire eating – most torches extinguished in one minute". Guinnessworldrecords.com. 2014-09-07. Retrieved 2015-03-03.
- Brushwood, Brian (2002). Professional's Guide to Fire Eating. Bizarre Magic, Inc. p. 170. ISBN 978-0-9713646-0-8. OCLC 224122749.
- Mannix, Daniel P. (1951). Step right up!. New York: Harper. p. 270. OCLC 529468.
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