Fire was invented when two flint stones were struck together igniting a spark. From earliest times people made fire by either striking flint stones or by rubbing a hard stick against a soft one so that the friction caused soft flakes to peel off and start to smoulder.

The only improvement on these primitive methods was the tinder box that contained some steel, flint, and some dry tinder for the spark to ignite. This tinder was often pieces of linen or silk. But this was a time-consuming process especially if the tinder was damp or cold.

In the 18th century matches were invented which immediately made the process of transferring the flame from the tinder to where it was needed easier and simpler. Early matches were strips of wood or cardboard or waxed paper with one end tipped with a chemical.

How did the Safety Match Originate? [Illustration by Anup Singh]
How did the Safety Match Originate? [Illustration by Anup Singh]

Initially these splinters of wood were dipped in sulphur. Sulphur was discovered much earlier and it is reported that the Chinese used such sulphur matches as early as the sixth century. However, while sulphur flared easily, it produced dangerous fumes. Though these matches became popular as they were cheap, the tinder box was still needed to produce the first spark.

A breakthrough was made in 1827 by John Walker an English chemist. He invented a match that had a combination of antimony sulphide, potassium chlorate, gum arabic and starch on its head. The match burst into flames with a series of small explosions that showered the experimenter with sparks. Walker called them “friction lights” as the flame was created by friction.

Old matches: Small wooden sticks with much sulfur on it
Old matches: Small wooden sticks with much sulfur on it

But these friction lights would sometimes ignite accidentally making them dangerous. Thankfully in 1844, a Swedish chemist Gustav E. Pasch came up with the idea of putting only some of these chemicals on the match head and the rest on the side of the box in which the matches could be kept and carried. The match then, could only be ignited when struck against the side of the box. This idea of “safety matches” was taken up and they began to be mass produced.

But what do present day matches contain? Red phosphorus is the main substance used in the match industry. Matches are of two types: Lucifer or friction matches and Safety matches.
Lucifer or friction matches light when rubbed against any rough surface. The match is basically a wood splint slightly longer than a normal matchstick. The tips are of two colours – red and white or blue and white.

The tip of the wooden strip is first dipped in molten sulphur or paraffin wax. The small white tip is made from the paste of phosphorus trisulphide. The red tip is made of various chemicals and substances – antimony trisulphide (to act as kindling material), potassium chlorate (to support combustion), glass or silica powder (to cause friction) and gum (to act as binder).

Lucifer matches can be struck against any hard surface that provides friction. When the stick is rubbed, the white tipped portion first ignites the match and when the tip has caught fire the red or blue part of the tip burns and carries the flame up the rest of the matchstick.

In the case of safety matches they can only be ignited by striking them against a special surface usually located on the match box. In addition red phosphorous is used to ignite the matchstick instead of phosphorous trisulphide.

Because of the fact that they easily burst into flames, Lucifer matches are no longer in general use. However, they are very popular in Westerns where cowboys are seen lighting the match on their boots, on the seat of the pants and even lighting it from their nails!

634 words | 6 minutes
Readability: Grade 8 (13-14 year old children)
Based on Flesch–Kincaid readability scores

Filed under: 5ws and h
Tags: #flame, #friction