On this day in 1827, an English chemist called John Walker, who lived and worked in Stockton on Tees, started selling the very first “friction lights”; or, to use their common name, “matches.”
Although Walker had long been interested in finding an easy way to produce fire, and had worked on all manner of experiments, his invention of the friction light actually happened almost by accident the year before. Walker had coated a stick with a mixture of two chemicals—potassium chlorate and antimony sulphide—and when he inadvertently scraped it across the hearth in his living room, it ignited itself. He was amazed and delighted, and continued to refine his invention until he had perfected it.
Although humans had been making fire was nothing new, it was still surprisingly hard to start a fire in the early 19th century. Earlier incarnations of the match were rather explosive to say the least. In Paris, in 1805, Jean Chancel had discovered that a splint dipped in a mixture of potassium chlorate, sugar, and gum could then be dipped into sulphuric acid to start a fire. In London, in 1828, Samuel Jones released the “Promethean Match”: a glass bead of sulphuric acid, coated on the outside with a similar mixture of potassium chlorate, sugar, and gum and wrapped in paper. To light it you broke the bead with a pair of pliers, or even your teeth, and watched as it erupted into a shower of sparks and dank sulphurous odours.
Walker’s invention was far superior. His finished friction lights were wooden splints tipped with potassium chloride—antimony sulphide paste and gum, which were scraped through a sandpaper fold to light. His ledger records that he had sold 250 boxes of friction lights—at a price of 1 shilling for 50 matches—from his Stockton on Tees pharmacy by 7 April 1827. Walker named them Congreves, in honour of British military inventor and rocket artillery pioneer Sir William Congreve, and he kept their composition secret.
However, ignoring advice from other scientists such as Michael Faraday, Walker neglected to patent his brilliant invention, considering the process too trivial to bother with. He soon had many imitators, and in 1829 Samuel Jones—the aforementioned inventor of the Promethean Match—stole the idea and started marketing the exact same product as his own highly lucrative “Lucifers.”
Image:Phosphorus bottle pocket matches, 1828 – Joseph Allen Skinner Museum, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.