Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
Nature Bulletins
Newton Home Page

Introduction and Instructions

Search Engine

Table of Contents



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 match. 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.

For 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.

To return to the Nature Bulletins Click Here!
Hosted by NEWTON

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Sponsered by Argonne National Labs