A history of matches: How a chemist created fire that would ultimately lead to safety matches

A history of matches: How a chemist created fire that would ultimately lead to safety matches

The invention of ‘fire on demand’ from friction matches reaches its 188th anniversary this week. Fire and Safety Centre looks at how the history of matches began with an accidental discovery, why the inventor didn’t patent it, and the route it took to the other end of the country where someone else did…

I’ve never before thought I might be related to someone who played a pivotal role in history, but reading about the invention of matches almost 190 years ago this very week in 1827, I was surprised to find that my own surname cropped up in the story.

I don’t share it with the inventor of matches, but with the entrepreneur, MP and Baronet who developed the idea for someone else to ultimately patent and coin the word ‘Lucifer’.

Fire MatchBut I’m getting ahead of myself. The real credit for the invention goes to an unsung hero called John Walker, who might never have started his experiments with chemicals had he had not failed in his attempts to become a surgeon because, it is said, he couldn’t stand the sight of the blood and gore involved in early 19th-century surgery.

Turning his back on that, Walker followed in his father’s footsteps to be a chemist and druggist with a shop in his native Stockton-on-Tees. It was during this stage in his life that he discovered the way to make matches almost by accident.

Finding the friction match whilst looking for something else

He was working on a combustible paste he hoped would have a commercial value in percussion caps for the firearms trade. Dragging along the hearth his mixing stick, coated with a dried mixture of chemicals including antimony sulphide and potassium chlorate, he was surprised to find it created a spark. He had created the friction match.

Recognising the potential of his discovery, he was soon selling bundles of 100 for a shilling (5p). In those days they didn’t come in matchboxes, but in a tin that cost an extra tuppence (1p) – but the strip of sandpaper for striking purposes was free!

The first client is said to have been a Stockton solicitor called Hixon, and amongst other early ones was the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Clearly this discovery had legs, even though the product was named ‘Suprata Hyper-Oxygenata Fricts,’ which didn’t trip readily off the tongue. He then renamed it to a much snappier version called ‘Friction Lights’.

Sound principle, but dangerous in use

Sadly for Walker, his invention wasn’t safety matches – in fact, the reverse was true, because they were unsafe matches. This was because they were prone to drop blobs of burning chemicals onto carpets and clothing. But the principle was sound; mankind had a need for three basic requirements – shelter, food, and warmth. Walker’s invention was an invaluable easy source of fire for the latter two, providing means to create fire necessary to cook food and keep warm.

Enter Sir Isaac Holden

Because of this benefit to humanity, Walker took a conscious decision not to take out a patent, even though it’s said scientist Michael Faraday urged him to do so in 1830, only three years after the chance discovery.

That altruism potentially cost him dearly, because others didn’t have the same scruples. Enter my namesake Sir Isaac Holden, who developed the Walker idea whilst teaching at a school in Reading, 40 years before being elected at MP for Knaresborough. He didn’t take out the patent, but one Samuel Johnson, of London, supposedly the father of one of Holden’s pupils, did.

So what turned friction matches into safety matches?

Safety matches are a clever chemical trick. The active ingredients are still present, just as they were in the friction match, but one is in the match head and another in the striker. Not until one is struck against the other can a spark or fire be created.

So that’s the history of the safety match! Remember though it’s dangerous to play with matches as they can be a fire hazard. Visit Fire and Safety Centre advice centre to learn about fire safety.

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