How Do Fire Eaters Eat Fire?

iStock/AlexD75
iStock/AlexD75

Very carefully. No, I'm not being a smart aleck; fire eaters, from fakirs to sideshow performers, have very few secrets about their craft. Urban legend has it that fire eaters use "cold flames" that aren't hot enough to burn the skin or coat their mouths with fireproofing chemicals, but any flame from any source is hot enough to burn the mouth (how many times have you burned the roof of your mouth on something as innocent as piece of pizza?) and applying flame-retarding chemicals to the mouth can pose health risks. The tricks of the trade are precision, practice and the knowledge of one simple law—heat travels upward.

[A quick disclaimer: I am not a fire eater, and this is not a fire-eating lesson. I am a writer, and this is an explanation of how professional fire eaters do what they do. You should not use this article to practice fire-eating at home, and if you do, you cannot blame me or mentalfloss.com when your spouse/significant other/roommate/landlord/legal guardian asks you how you burned the place down. Now then"¦]

Eat Up

Fire eaters don't literally eat fire. They place flames in their mouth and extinguish them. It's like snuffing out a candle with your hand, but more impressive. During their performance, the fire eater has to remember two things: one, fire and hot air move upward, and two, don't inhale.

A fire-eater starts by taking a wide stance to keep her* balance and tilting her head back while holding the torch above.

As she lowers the torch towards her mouth, the fire eater takes a deep breath and begins to exhale slow and steady. This slow exhalation keeps the heat away from the fire eater's face as she moves the torch closer to her face and places it in her mouth. With her tongue stuck out wide and flat, the fire eater places the wick of the torch (which should be cool to the touch—fire eaters often use Kevlar thread for their wicks) onto it and partially closes her lips around the torch in an "O" shape.

So far, so good. Now the fire eater has to extinguish the flame, and quick. There are two ways to do this. The fire eater can completely close her lips all the way around the torch, cutting off oxygen and killing the flame, or she can put the flame out with a quick exhaling breath. The second method is preferable for performances where the torch has been lit for a while and may be too hot to touch with the lips.

That's fire eating in a nutshell (though fire eaters have a number of other tricks in their repertoires, like vapor tricks, multiple torch eats and fancy extinguishes). It seems pretty basic, but to do it right and make it look good for a crowd, fire eaters learn the method and then spend years practicing. If this sounds like the kind of thing you want to make a career or a hobby out of, the Coney Island Sideshow School offers classes in the art of fire eating.

* I'm going with the feminine pronoun because 1. most of the fire eaters I've seen in my day have been women and 2. I don't feel like writing he/she every time.

This question was asked by reader Katie Sue. If you've got a burning question that you'd like to see answered here, shoot me an email at flossymatt (at) gmail.com. Twitter users can also make nice with me and ask me questions there. Be sure to give me your name and location (and a link, if you want) so I can give you a little shout out.

In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

In 1989, some three decades after King had earned his doctorate, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

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Who Is 'The Real McCoy'?

Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Ypsilanti Historical Society, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After taking a cool, carbonated sip of champagne from the Champagne region of France, you might say, “Ah, now that’s the real McCoy.” Sparkling wine from anywhere else is technically just sparkling wine.

The phrase “the real McCoy,” which can be used to describe any genuine version of something, has several possible origin stories. And while none of them mention champagne, a few do involve other types of alcohol.

According to HowStuffWorks, the earliest known recorded instance of the saying was an 1856 reference to whisky in the Scottish National Dictionary—"A drappie [drop] o' the real MacKay”—and by 1870, a pair of whisky distillers by the name of McKay had adopted the slogan “the real McKay” for their products. As the theory goes, the phrase made its long journey across the pond, where it eventually evolved into the Americanized “McCoy.”

Another theory suggests “the real McCoy” originated in the United States during Prohibition. In 1920, Florida-based rum runner Bill McCoy was the first enterprising individual to stock a ship with alcohol in the Caribbean, sail to New York, and idle at least three miles offshore, where he could sell his wares legally in what was then considered international waters. Since McCoy didn’t water down his alcohol with substances like prune juice, wood alcohol, and even turpentine, people believe his customers started calling his top-notch product “the real McCoy.” There’s no definitive proof that this origin story is true, but The Real McCoy rum distillery was founded on the notion.

There are also a couple other leading theories that have nothing to do with alcohol. In 1872, inventor Elijah McCoy patented a self-regulating machine that lubricated parts of a steam engine without the need for manual maintenance, allowing trains to run continuously for much longer distances. According to Snopes, the invention’s success spawned a plethora of poor-quality imitations, which led railroad personnel to refer to McCoy’s machines as “the real McCoy.”

Elijah McCoy’s invention modernized the transportation industry, but he wasn’t the only 19th-century McCoy who packed a punch. The other was welterweight champion Norman Selby, better known as Kid McCoy. In one story, McCoy decked a drunken bar patron to prove that he really was the famous boxer, prompting others to christen him “the real McCoy.” In another, his alleged penchant for throwing fights caused the press to start calling him “the real McCoy” to acknowledge when he was actually trying to win. And yet another simply suggests that the boxer’s popularity birthed so many McCoy-wannabes that Selby started to specify that he was, in fact, the real McCoy.

So which “the real McCoy” origin story is the real McCoy? The 1856 Scottish mention of “the real MacKay” came before Elijah McCoy’s railroad invention, Kid McCoy’s boxing career, and Bill McCoy’s rum-running escapades, but it’s possible that the phrase just gained popularity in different spheres at different times.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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