Block of the Week: Furnace

Gives the nastiest burns outside of a Facebook comments section

We all know how the first day of a new Minecraft world usually goes. Punch a tree, collect a bunch of wood, make a crafting bench and some basic tools, then dig out a mine and use the stone you collect to build our Block of the Week - the furnace. Now we're cooking!

The furnace was added to Minecraft in version 0.31 on 19 February 2010, alongside string and feathers. Prior to its addition, the only way to smelt something was to drop it on the ground and then burn it with a flint and steel. Not very practical!

At first, the only thing that could be cooked up was cobblestone, but by 20 March 2010 the block was pretty much functional in the way we know it today. Since then it hasn't been tweaked much - patches have only added a new texture, some UI and lighting improvements, and the ability to use wooden tools as fuel when you don't need them any more. So long, humble wooden shovel! You served me well, old friend.

But now you BURN.

The main point of a furnace is to smelt things. Smelting requires fuel - usually coal or charcoal, and an object to be smelted. Pop those in the furnace and you'll see a progress bar for the smelting process which, when completed, yields a new object. Be careful which fuel you choose, because some are more efficient than others.

Smelting is a pretty broad term in the context of Minecraft, and encompasses everything from carefully roasting a chicken (yum!), to firing clay into bricks (less yum!), to drying out a sponge (yum! Don't judge, I'm hungry!). But there are other things that you'd expect to require a furnace - like making a cake - which actually don't.

In the real world, smelting has a more precise definition - it refers solely to getting a metal out of an ore - and it's a more involved process than you might think. In most ores, the metal is chemically bound to other things, so you need to perform several steps of chemical reactions to get them to separate. It's about as easy as getting a friend in a loving relationship to break up with their significant other. Also, please don't try to do that, you nasty, anti-cupid weirdo.

Remarkably, humans figured out smelting more than 8,000 years ago in prehistoric times. Go us! The ability to extract copper and bronze began the Bronze Age, which was followed a few millennia later by the Iron Age when people figured out how to turn oxygen-rich iron ore into pure iron. Both discoveries had a huge impact on human society. You'd be reading this on a stone tablet without that discovery! And instead of playing Minecraft, you'd probably just be working down an actual mine. Less fun.

All that happened long before the invention of writing, so we don't know how it was done exactly. But historians guess that the first smelting may have taken place in kilns designed to create pottery - which were the only places around at that time that would have been able to reach the necessary temperatures. In that context, the flexible furnaces of Minecraft are perhaps not so historically inaccurate after all! That's a first for us!