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The History of Matches

British pharmacist John Walker invented friction matches by accident in 1826. Walker was working on an experimental paste that could be used in guns. When he scraped the wooden instrument he was using to mix the substances in his paste, it caught fire, and Walker realized that he had stumbled upon a way to light fires quickly and efficiently. (Previously, lighting fires was a much more laborious process.) Walker refined his project to produce a flammable paste made with antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate, and gum arabic. He then dipped cardboard strips coated with sulfur into the paste and began selling what he called “friction lights” to the local population in the spring of 1827. His invention quickly took off and Walker was advised to patent it despite the risk that the burning sulfur would sometimes drop from the stick. But for reasons unknown, Walker chose not to patent his invention and it was soon copied by Samuel Jones of London, who began selling what he called “Lucifers” in 1829. After some experimentation, white phosphorus matches emerged and became the dominant type. Experimentation continued into the 1830s and 1840s, and match-making soon became a thriving industry in England. In 1845, Austrian chemist Anton von Schrötter discovered red phosphorus, which is nontoxic and is not subject to spontaneous combustion, and this led to the creation of the safety match, which separated the combustion ingredients between the match head and a special striking surface. This method of match-making was then patented by J.E. Lundström of Sweden in 1855. However, British factories continued to largely favor matches made using white phosphorous. Match-making factory workers were almost all women and children, and working conditions were poor. In particular, it was discovered that working with white phosphorus was dangerous, as it led to “phossy jaw,” a debilitating and painful condition that causes the bone in the jaw to die and teeth to decay. By 1892, newspapers began investigating the plight of match workers. Eventually, match manufacturers stopped using white phosphorus in favor of safer compounds like phosphorus sesquisulfide, which was first prepared by French chemist Georges Lemoine in 1864. It was not patented until 1898, and soon after, white phosphorus was outlawed nearly everywhere, including the United States, where its use was outlawed in 1910. Today, there are two main types of matches on the market — safety matches and strike-anywhere matches. Modern safety matches are usually made with antimony sulfide, oxidizing agents such as potassium chlorate, and sulfur or charcoal in the heads, plus red phosphorus in the striking surface. Strike-anywhere matches are still usually made using Lemoine’s phosphorus sesquisulfide.

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