Nature Bulletin No. 623-A January 8, 1977
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
Many articles which we constantly use are so commonplace that we
take them for granted with no thought of how and where they are made
nor of their curious beginnings. An interesting example is a match. One
of the oldest methods of creating fire was to strike one stone with
another until a spark ignited a bit of dried moss. Much later, a chunk of
iron was used instead. By the 14th century, on the hearth of every
household was a box containing a steel striker, a flint stone, and a piece
of charred linen or "tinder. ' The tinder was ignited by a spark, and by
blowing on it and a little pile of splinters, shavings or pine needles, they
burst into flame.
In 1680, Robert Boyle discovered that by coating coarse paper with
phosphorus, and drawing a sulfur-tipped wooden splinter through a fold
of it, he could create fire. But the phosphorus was poisonous and very
expensive. In 1780 the Phosphoric Candle or Ethereal Match -- waxed
paper or string tipped with phosphorus, in a sealed glass container --
was produced in France. When the glass was broken the phosphorus
ignited and set fire to the paper or string.
In 1805 the Instantaneous Light Box or Oxymuriated Match appeared a
bottle of sulfuric acid and 50 chemically-treated wooden splints that
ignited when dipped in the acid. It sold for $2. 00 -- four cents per
Most people, however, relied on flint, steel and tinder until long after an
Englishman, John Walker, invented the friction match in 1827. Those
first matches, which he called "Sulphurata Hyperoxygenta Fricts," were
3-inch wooden splints tipped with potassium chlorate, antimony sulfide,
gum and starch. When drawn through a folded piece of sandpaper, one
of them would ignite with a series of explosions, like a string of
firecrackers, and a shower of sparks.
many years, most friction matches were tipped with a mixture of
white phosphorus and sulphur, and could be struck anywhere --
including the seat of your pants -- but they left a luminous streak and
produced an evil-smelling vapor that was poisonous. When Samuel
Jones began making the ' Lucifer, ' in 1829, on the boxes was printed a
warning that this gas should not be inhaled.
Today the kitchen or "farmer's ' match is a splint of white pine, 2-3 /8
inches long, dipped in a chemical to prevent after-glow and then in
parafin to make the surface burn readily. A total of 32 ingredients are in
the head which, except for its small sensitive tip, will not ignite under
ordinary friction. They are made in a completely automatic, continuous
machine that produces more than a million matches per hour. From the
time a block of white pine is fed into it, until, 60 minutes later, the
matches emerge in boxes ready for shipment, they arc not touched by a
human hand. A waterproof match requires 90 minutes.
After red phosphorus, a nonpoisonous form, was discovered in 1845, J.
E. Lundstrum invented the safety match and for many years it was a
Swedish monopoly. They are marketed in small, paper-thin wooden
boxes with a mixture including red phosphorus painted on one edge.
The small wooden splints, made of aspen, are tipped with quick-burning
chemicals, such as potassium chlorate, which must be ignited by
rubbing them on that treated edge of a box.
The paper book match was invented in 1892 by Josphua Pusey, a
Philadelphia patent attorney. The Diamond Match Company bought the
patent, fixed the number of matches per book at 20 and, to make it a
safety match, put the striking surface on the outside of the cover.
Lighters now used instead of matches are merely a modern version of
the ancient method using flint, steel and tinder.
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Update: June 2012