A Brief History
On April 7, 1827, John Walker of Stockton-on-Tees, England (Dunham County), first sold the item he had invented the year before, the now taken for granted friction match. Today, with smoking on the decline, and the need for starting fires greatly diminished by modern technology, it is hard to remember just how important the invention of the friction match was. Just try lighting a stogie with flint and steel!
Walker was original apprenticed to a surgeon, but quickly realized he was not of the proper mind set for surgery, so he switched his studies to chemistry. After suitable education, Walker opened up shop in Stockton as a chemist and druggist.
Prior to the friction match, people originally (going back to cave man days) had to find fire as it occurred naturally, usually from a lightning strike. Ancient people then learned to make fire by vigorously rubbing sticks together, and if you have ever tried this method, vigorously is the understatement of the century. Later methods of starting fires such as using a flint scraped against iron or steel to create a spark or using a magnifying glass (as long as it was sunny outside) made starting fires much easier, but still problematic in many situations. The use of highly compressed air to create enough heat to produce flame was also invented, but not so portable. The 17th Century saw serious attempts to use sulfur and phosphorus to create usable matches, but without success. Thus, though before the 19th Century many people experimented with various chemicals they knew that in certain combinations the mixture could start a fire, it took John Walker to get the brilliant idea of combining such chemicals at the end of a splinter of wood that could be rubbed against a rough surface to produce a flame. Et voila, the match was born!
One previous attempt at the invention of the match was produced by a Parisian chemist assistant, Jean Chancel, who invented a match that in order to light it, the end had to be dunked into a small vial of sulfuric acid. Expensive, not practical, and even dangerous. The attempt failed to become a commercial success. Another commercial failure was offered by Samuel Jones of London in 1828, in his case his “match” consisted of a small glass vial containing sulfuric acid and coated with potassium chlorate, in turn rolled up in paper. This dangerous device had to be cracked open to produce flame. You can imagine the danger of putting such a device in your pocket! Meanwhile, other chemists and inventors tried to produce a viable friction match, either the kind that had to be rubbed on a phosphorus coated surface or the “strike anywhere” type. They failed to produce a suitable product until John Walker finally solved the puzzle.
Matches were originally the “strike anywhere” variety, and the original Walker product was not exactly perfect, as it was prone to dropping flaming bits which as you could imagine, had some problematic potential. What seems incredible today, is that the phosphorus tips of the early matches were often eaten by people, resulting in death or bone disorders. The manufacture of the matches also left workers with bone disorders due to handling white phosphorus. Later the “safety match” was invented which deleted the phosphorus from the tip of the match and instead the matches came with a specific striking surface infused with red phosphorus, a safer compound than white phosphorus. The common books of paper matches that are familiar to us today are of this type, also called “hygienic matches.” Credit for the safety match goes to Gustaf Erik Pasch of Sweden, who invented the system of a special striking surface in 1844.
Aside from the familiar books of paper matches, 20 to a book, matching the count of a pack of cigarettes, we still have the strike anywhere variety as well, often called “kitchen matches,” usually with a wooden shaft instead of cardboard/paper. We also have extra long matches, useful for lighting fireplaces and other burning objects from a safe distance. All-weather or “lifeboat” matches have tips dipped in wax or other waterproof compounds to allow their use in wet environments. Survival kits often have this variety included. Lifeboat matches commonly also burn more vigorously than standard matches and are less likely to be blown out by the wind.
As a side note, we acknowledge the invention of the “cigarette” lighter (actually a mechanical/chemical Firestarter), originally an adaptation of the flintlock or wheel-lock firearms ignition device using flint, steel, and black gunpowder. The modern version of the cigarette lighter was invented in 1903, when the ferrocerium compound was developed for this specific use, what is often referred to erroneously as the “flint” in a lighter. Austrian Carl Auer von Welsbach gets the credit for this invention. By 1910, the Ronson brand of lighter was in widespread use, a refillable type. Later, the common disposable type of lighter has become prevalent in recent decades.
Next time someone asks you, “Do you have a match?” answer them not with the worn out reply, “Yeah, your face an my xxx” but instead ask them if they know the word for collecting match related paraphernalia such as matchbooks and matchbook covers. The answer is phillumeny.
Question for students (and subscribers): When is the last time you used a match and for what purpose? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Barmakov, VG. Exciting phillumeny history country to match labels. Eksmo, 2007.
Pyne, Stephen. Fire: A Brief History. University Press Audiobooks, 2019.
The featured image in this article, a depiction of John Walker, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.