The First Burn — 1986
The origin story of Burning Man starts in 1986, when Larry Harvey and Jerry James decided, somewhat randomly, to build a larger-than-life man out of scrap wood and burn it on the beach near San Francisco. Harvey had been going through a midlife crisis after a bad breakup when he spontaneously called up his friend James and said: “Let’s … let’s burn a man, Jerry.”
The two men met through the “Latte Carpenters,” a group of friends who were intellectually curious and loved discourse. At the time, Harvey worked primarily as a carpenter and a landscaper. James was a carpenter, too.
Harvey and James created an 8-foot human effigy and dragged it down to Baker Beach with about 10 other friends on June 22, the summer solstice. They poured gasoline on the man and lit it on fire. “It was like a second sun brought down to this earth,” Harvey said in a 1997 speech.
As soon as the man began to burn, everyone on the beach came running toward it. The impromptu group started singing and as the wind blew all the flames to one side of the man, a woman ran over to hold its hand, an act Harvey described as the event's first “spontaneous performance."
And with that first burning of the man, something new and significant was born. “What we had instantly created was a community,” Harvey said.
Starting A Tradition — 1987
The first burning man had clearly resonated with the crowd on the beach, so much so that Harvey and James decided to burn another man in 1987. This time around, they started work on the man a few weeks in advance and made him nearly twice the size of the original effigy at 15 feet tall. For the second year in a row, the man had a triangular-shaped face, a tradition that would live on throughout the event’s history. Approximately 80 people attended the second burn.
Already, some of Burning Man’s core values were starting to take shape, namely its focus on communal effort. “We depended for our resources, not on grants, and not on sponsorship, and not on anybody's funding, but on our own communal efforts undertaken together,” Harvey said in a 2000 lecture.