friction lights

Human beings have always had an interest in fire. Of course, fires have been around…forever, but people didn’t always have the ability to control them, or even get them started. Then 1826, John Walker was stirring a pot of chemicals when he noticed a dried lump had formed on the end of the mixing stick. Without thinking, John tried to scrape the dried glob. Suddenly, the stirring stick ignited. Immediately he knew he had found something amazing. So, he made lots more of his “friction lights” to sell at the local bookstore.

The “friction lights” were three inches long and came neatly in a box with a piece of sandpaper. Walker wasn’t interested in patenting the idea, so Samuel Jones copied the matches and sold “Lucifers.” They were a little more practical than Walker’s friction lights. Lucifers were shorter and came in a smaller cardboard box for easy carrying. Too bad John Walker didn’t patent his product. Imagine how rich he would have become. Matches are still used in lots of places.

A Chinese book titled “Records of the Unworldly and the Strange,” by Tao Gu, makes reference to the earliest description of a match-like product. They were called “fire-inch sticks” and used sulfur to start the flame. Still, they were not strikeable, which makes me wonder how they worked exactly. French chemist Jean Chancel invented the first self-igniting match in 1805. Mr. Chancel’s method involved a wooden splint tipped with sugar and potassium chlorate that was carefully dipped into a small bottle of concentrated sulfuric acid. Chancel’s method was highly unpleasant and dangerous. The mix of chemicals produced a yellow smelly gas called chlorine dioxide, which explodes when it comes into contact with pretty much anything. Today, matches are made with non-poisonous red phosphorus, discovered by Johan Edvard Lundstrom. The Diamond Match Company was the first to sell “safety matches” in the United States, forfeiting their patent rights to allow all match companies to produce safe matches. Still, we can trace it all back to the accidental invention of John walker, pharmacist.

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