Homo erectus, a forerunner of modern man, accidentally discovered fire through the friction generated by two sticks rubbed together.
But 1.5 million years would pass before a British chemist, John Walker, produced instantaneous fire through the friction of a match rubbed over a coarse surface. Ironically, we know more today about Homo erectus than we do about John Walker, who also made his discovery by accident
Other inventors and scientists had attempted to make matches and thee first friction device of note was the Boyle match. In 1669, an alchemist from Hamburg, Hennig Brandt, believed he was on the verge of transforming an olio of base metals into gold, when instead he produced the element phosphorus. Disappointed, he ignored the discovery, which came to the attention of British physicist Robert Boyle. In 1680, Boyle devised a small square of coarse paper coated with phosphorus, along with a splinter of wood tipped with sulphur. When the splinter was drawn through a folded paper, it burst into flames. This marked the first demonstration of the principle of a chemical match. However, phosphorus was scarce in those days, so matches were relegated to the status of a costly, limited quantity novelty. They disappeared before most Europeans—who kindled fires with sparks from flint striking steel—knew they had existed.
The year 1817 witnessed a more dramatic attempt to produce a striking match. A French chemist demonstrated to university colleagues his “Ethereal Match.” It consisted of a strip of paper treated with a compound of phosphorus that ignited when exposed to air. The combustible paper was sealed in an evacuated glass tube, the “match.” To light the match, a person smashed the glass and hastened to kindle a fire, since the paper strip burned for only the length of a breath. The French match was not only ethereal but ephemeral—as was its popularity.
Enter John Walker.
One day in 1826, Walker, the owner of an apothecary in Stockton-on-Tees, was in a backroom laboratory, attempting to develop a new explosive. Stirring a mixture of chemicals with a wooden stick, he noticed that a tear-shaped drop had dried to the stick’s tip. To quickly remove it, he scraped the drop against the laboratory’s stone floor. The stick ignited and the friction match was born in a blaze. According to Walker’s journal, the glob at the end of his stick contained no phosphorus, but was a mixture of antimony sulphide, potassium chlorate, gum, and starch. John Walker made himself several three-inch-long friction matches, which he ignited for the amusement of friends by pulling them between a sheet of coarse paper—as alchemist Hennig Brandt had done two centuries earlier.
No one knows if John Walker ever intended to capitalise on his invention; he never patented it. But during one of his demonstrations of the three-inch match in London, an observer, Samuel Jones, realised the invention’s commercial potential and set himself up in the match business. Jones named his matches “Lucifers”. Londoners loved the ignitable sticks, and commerce records show that following the advent of matches, tobacco smoking of all kinds greatly accelerated. Early matches ignited with a fireworks of sparks and threw off an odour so offensive that boxes of them carried a printed warning:
“If possible, avoid inhaling gas. Persons whose lungs are delicate should by no means use Lucifers.”
In those days, it was the match and not the cigarette that was believed to be hazardous to health. The French found the odour of British Lucifers so repellent that in 1830, a Paris chemist, Charles Sauria, reformulated a combustion compound based on phosphorus. Dr. Sauria eliminated the match’s smell, lengthened its burning time, but unwittingly ushered in a near epidemic of a deadly disease known as “phossy jaw.” Phosphorus was highly poisonous. Phosphorus matches were being manufactured in large quantities. Hundreds of factory workers developed phossy jaw, a necrosis that poisons the body’s bones, especially those of the jaw. Babies sucking on match heads developed the syndrome, which caused infant skeletal deformities. As an occupational hazard, phosphorus necrosis plagued factory workers in both England and America until the first nonpoisonous match was introduced in 1911 by the Diamond Match Company
. The harmless chemical used was sesquisulfide of phosphorus. And as a humanitarian gesture, which won public commendation from President Taft, Diamond forfeited patent rights, allowing rival companies to introduce nonpoisonous matches. The company later won a prestigious award for the elimination of an occupational disease. The Diamond match achieved another breakthrough. French phosphorus matches lighted with the slightest fiction, producing numerous accidental fires. Many fires in England, France, and America were traced to kitchen rodents gnawing on match heads at night. The Diamond formula raised the match’s point of ignition by more than 100 degrees. And experiments proved that rodents did not find the poisonless match head tempting even if they were starving.
According to a website, seemingly devoted to this sort of thing, over 500 billion matches are struck every year in America !