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Ben there, done that for Aug. 10, 2022

A brief history of the humble match

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Commonplace items and their history have nearly an unmatched grip on my curiosity. What I find most striking are the accidental and unexpected origins that make me say “Wait, what?” Hopefully, this spark of curiosity will inspire you, too. I hope the wordplay is not more than you can “candle,” but it is time to shed some light on the origins of the humble match.

Prior to the advent of the match, people used various implements for their ignition needs. All had significant drawbacks: flint and steel were hard to control; igniting by directing sun’s rays with a large magnifying glass to start a flame was inoperable at night. A whole host of other tools existed as well, but you get the idea. In 1805, with the invention of the first lighter, interest was sparked. In that same year, Jean Chancel of Paris created the first match that would ignite when dipped into an asbestos bottle of sulfuric acid. As you can imagine, this was far from safe and never caught on. Various other inventors would take their own stabs at creating an easy and convenient sparking stick. However, more ideas didn’t catch fire until about 20 years after the first match.

In 1826, John Walker, an English pharmacist and chemist, was experimenting with various chemical pastes involving sulfur. His aim was to create something that could be used with firearms. The breakthrough came when one of the wooden sticks he had used to mix a paste ignited when it scraped against the stone of the fireplace hearth. Instead of burning out quickly, the dried paste on the stick burned long enough to transfer the flame to the wood. Walker had his spark of inspiration.

Walker produced and sold his matches; the matches were in boxes of 50 and included a folded piece of sandpaper. To strike a match, the customer was instructed to place the match in the middle of the sandpaper and pull it out quickly. The added friction from the sandpaper would ignite the paste-coated tip. While these friction matches were a huge leap forward, they were not without their faults. Occasionally, the dried paste on the end of the match would come loose in the act of striking. A small fireball would be sent streaming to the floor where it could easily light a carpet or woman’s skirt on fire. As a result, both France and Germany banned them outright. While this threatened to extinguish the match’s development, the light was not ready to go out. Walker never patented his invention, leaving the door wide open for more inventors to undertake their hand at making matches.

In 1829, Sir Isaac Holden utilized John Walker’s concepts to produce matches with a significant punch. With the help of a London-based chemist, Samuel Jones, the manufacturing of these new matches began under the rather on-the-nose name, “Lucifers.” These new matches were more effective at starting fires, but they were still inconsistent and dangerous. Lucifers were far from perfect; however, they did succeed in advancing the concept of the match into the mainstream.

Many other enterprising tinkerers would endeavor to crack the match-making code. A 15-year arms race in making matches generated numerous designs and formulations. A winner finally triumphed from Sweden, of all places. In 1844, Gustaf Erik Pasch create a match using red phosphorous that could only be ignited when struck against a specially prepared surface on the side of the box. This solved the long-standing safety issues once and for all. The Swedes held a near monopoly on safety matches for years. The rights to these safety matches were eventually licensed to manufacturers in the UK and USA before becoming ubiquitous. The result? The humble, commonplace match now lights our candles and campfires!

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