An igniting match
Match heads

A match is a tool for starting a fire under controlled conditions. A typical modern match is made of a small wooden stick or stiff paper. One end is coated with a material that can be ignited by frictional heat generated by striking the match against a suitable surface.[1] Matches are usually sold in quantity; wooden ones are packaged in boxes, and paper matches are clustered in rows stapled into matchbooks. They are commonly sold by tobacconists and many other kinds of shops. The coated end of a match, known as the match "head," contains either phosphorus or phosphorus sesquisulfide as the active ingredient and gelatin as a binder. There are two main types of matches: safety matches, which can be struck only against a specially prepared surface, and strike-anywhere matches, for which any suitably frictional surface can be used. Matches in former times were often unsafe due to the use of acid and poisonous chemicals. Some match-like compositions, known as electric matches, are ignited electrically and do not make use of heat from friction.



Historically, the term match referred to lengths of cord (later, cambric) impregnated with chemicals, and allowed to burn continuously.[1] These were used to light fires and fire guns (see matchlock) and cannons (see linstock).[2] Such matches were characterised by their burning speed i.e. quick match and slow match. Depending on formulation, a slow match burns at a rate of around 30 cm (1 ft) per hour and a quick match at 4 to 60 centimetres (1.6 to 24 in) per minute. The modern equivalent of this sort of match is the simple fuse, still used in pyrotechnics to obtain a controlled time delay before ignition.[3] The original meaning of the word still persists in some pyrotechnics terms, such as black match (a black powder-impregnated fuse) and Bengal match (a firework akin to sparklers producing a relatively long-burning, coloured flame). But, when friction matches became commonplace, they became the main object meant by the term.

The word "match" derives from Old French "mèche" referring to the wick of a candle.[4]

Early matches

A predecessor of the modern match, small sticks of pinewood impregnated with sulfur were used in China in AD 577. Besieged by military forces of Northern Zhou and Chen, Northern Qi court ladies were out of tinder and desperate for a means to start fires for cooking and heating.[5] During the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (AD 907–960), a book called the Records of the Unworldly and the Strange written by Chinese author Tao Gu in about 950 stated:

If there occurs an emergency at night it may take some time to make a light to light a lamp. But an ingenious man devised the system of impregnating little sticks of pinewood with sulfur and storing them ready for use. At the slightest touch of fire they burst into flame. One gets a little flame like an ear of corn. This marvellous thing was formerly called a "light-bringing slave", but afterwards when it became an article of commerce its name was changed to 'fire inch-stick'.[5][6]

Prior to the use of matches, fires were obtained using a burning glass (a lens) to focus the sun on tinder, a method that could only work on sunny days, or by igniting tinder with sparks produced by striking flint and steel. Early work had been done by alchemist Hennig Brandt who discovered the inflammable nature of phosphorus in 1669.[7] Others like Robert Boyle and his assistant, Godfrey Haukweicz continued these experiments in the 1680s with phosphorus and sulfur, but their efforts did not produce practical and inexpensive methods for generating fires.[8] Matches of various kinds began to appear in Europe by about 1530.[5] But the first modern, self-igniting match was invented in 1805 by Jean Chancel, assistant to Professor Louis Jacques Thénard of Paris. The head of the match consisted of a mixture of potassium chlorate, sulfur, sugar, and rubber. The match was ignited by dipping its tip in a small asbestos bottle filled with sulfuric acid.[3] This kind of match was quite expensive and its usage was dangerous, so Chancel's matches never gained much popularity. In London, matches meant for lighting cigars were introduced in 1849 by Heurtner who had a shop called the Lighthouse in the Strand. One version that he sold was called "Euperion" (sometimes "Empyrion") which was popular for kitchen use and nick-named as "Hugh Perry" while another meant for outdoor use was called a "Vesuvian" (a similar version of which was patented by Samuel Jones in 1828 as a "Promethean").[9] The Vesuvians or "flamers" were designed to work out of doors. The head was large and contained niter, charcoal and wood dust and was tipped with phosphorus. The handle was large and made of hardwood so as to burn vigorously and last for a while. Some even had glass stems.[10] Vesuvians and Prometheans had a bulb of sulfuric acid at the tip which had to be broken with pliers to start the reaction.[11] Samuel Jones introduced fuzees for lighting cigars and pipes in 1832. A similar invention was patented in 1839 by John Stevens in America. In 1832, William Newton patented the "wax vesta", a wax stem that embedded cotton threads and had a tip of phosphorus. Variants known as "candle matches" were made by Savaresse and Merckel in 1836.[10]

Friction matches

Ignition of a match

The first "friction match" was invented by English chemist John Walker in 1826. Walker was a chemist and druggist from Stockton-on-Tees and he began to experiment with "percussion powders" made up mainly of potassium chlorate. His early experiments led to a match that was made of wood splints dipped in a paste of sulfur, gum, potassium chlorate, sugar and antimony trisulfide. The match was drawn between a fold of sandpaper to ignite it. Between 1827 and 1829, Walker made about 168 sales of his matches. It was however dangerous and flaming balls sometimes fell to the floor burning carpets and dresses, leading to their being banned in France and Germany.[11] Walker either did not consider his invention important enough to patent or neglected it.[12][7] In order for the splint to catch fire, they were often treated with sulfur and the odor was improved by the addition of camphor.[7] A version of Walker's match was patented by Samuel Jones and these were sold as lucifer matches. These early matches had a number of problems- an initial violent reaction, an unsteady flame and unpleasant odor and fumes. Lucifers could ignite explosively, sometimes throwing sparks a considerable distance. Lucifers were manufactured in the United States by Ezekial Byam.[7] The term "lucifer" persisted as slang in the 20th century (for example in the First World War song Pack Up Your Troubles) and in the Netherlands and Belgium today matches are still called lucifers.

Lucifers were however quickly replaced after the discovery in 1830 by Frenchman Charles Sauria who substituted the antimony sulfide with white phosphorus.[13] These new phosphorus matches had to be kept in airtight metal boxes but became popular. In England, these phosphorus matches were called "Congreves" after Sir William Congreve (1772–1828) while they went by the name of "loco foco" in the United States. The earliest American patent for the phosphorus friction match was granted in 1836 to Alonzo Dwight Phillips of Springfield, Massachusetts. From 1830 to 1890 the composition of these matches remained largely unchanged although some improvements were made. In 1843 William Ashgard replaced the sulfur used to treat splints with beeswax, reducing the pungency of the fumes. This was replaced by Paraffin wax in 1862 by Charles W. Smith, resulting in what were called "parlor matches". From 1870 the end of the splint was fireproofed by impregnation with fire-retardant chemicals such as alum, sodium silicate and other salts resulting in what were commonly called as a "drunkard's match" and prevented the accidental burning of the user's fingers. Other advances were made for the mass manufacture of matches. Early matches were made from blocks of woods with cuts separating the splints but leaving their bases attached. Later versions were made in the form of thin combs. The splints would be broken away from the comb when required.[10] A noiseless match was invented in 1836 by the Hungarian János Irinyi, who was a student of chemistry.[14] An unsuccessful experiment by his professor, Meissner, gave Irinyi the idea to replace potassium chlorate with lead dioxide[15] in the head of the phosphorus match.[14] He liquefied phosphorus in warm water and shook it in a glass foil, until it became granulated. He mixed the phosphorus with lead and gum arabic, poured the paste-like mass into a jar, and dipped the pine sticks into the mixture and let them dry. When he tried them that evening, all of them lit evenly. Irinyi thus invented the noiseless match. He sold the invention to István Rómer, a match manufacturer. Rómer, a Hungarian pharmacist living in Vienna, bought the invention and production rights from Irinyi for 60 forints. István Rómer became rich and Irinyi himself went on to publish articles and a textbook on chemistry and founded several match factories.[14]

The replacement of white phosphorus

Unfortunately, those involved in the manufacture of the new phosphorus matches were afflicted with phossy jaw and other bone disorders,[16] and there was enough white phosphorus in one pack to kill a person. Deaths and suicides from eating the heads of matches became frequent. The earliest report of phosphorus necrosis was made in 1845 by Lorinser in Vienna and a New York surgeon published a pamphlet with notes on nine cases.[17] [18] Attempts were made to reduce the ill-effects on workers through the introduction of inspections and regulations. Anton Schrötter discovered in 1850 that heating white-phosphorus at 250° C in an inert atmosphere produced a red allotropic form. This form did not fume in contact with air and it was suggested that this would make it a suitable substitute in match manufacture although it was slightly more expensive.[19] Two French chemists, Henri Savene and Emile David Cahen, developed a safe match using phosphorus sesquisulfide that was patented in 1898. They proved that the substance was not poisonous, that it could be used in a "strike-anywhere" match, and that the match heads were not explosive.[20] They patented a safety match composition in 1898 based on phosphorus sesquisulfide and potassium chlorate.[20] Albright and Wilson developed a safe means of making commercial quantities of phosphorus sesquisulfide in the United Kingdom in 1899 and started selling it to match makers.[21][22] White phosphorus however continued to be used and the serious effects it had led to legislations in many countries to ban its use. Finland introduced laws to prohibit the use of white phosphorus in 1872 followed by Denmark in 1874, France in 1897, Switzerland in 1898 and Holland in 1901.[17] An agreement, the Berne Convention, was reached at Bern, Switzerland, on September 1906 to prohibit the use of white phosphorus in matches.[23] This required each country to pass laws prohibiting the use of white phosphorus in matches. Great Britain passed a law in 1908 prohibiting its use in matches after 31 December 1910. The United States did not pass a law, but instead placed a "punitive tax" on white phosphorus-based matches, one so high as to render their manufacture financially impractical, in 1913. India and Japan banned them in 1919; and China in 1925.

New York Times report, January 29, 1911

In the United States, the Diamond Match Company obtained the patent for sesquisulfide manufacture in 1900 for a sum of $100,000.[17] In 1901 Albright and Wilson started making phosphorus sesquisulfide at their Niagara Falls plant for the U.S. market, but American manufacturers continued to use white phosphorus based matches.[20] The Niagara Falls plant stopped making it until 1910, when the United States Congress forbade the shipment of white phosphorus matches in interstate commerce.[21] At the same time the largest producer of matches in the USA granted free use, in the USA, of its phosphorus sesquisulfide safety match patents.[21] President William Howard Taft of the US then wrote publicly to the Diamond Match Company asking them to release the patent for the good of mankind, an event that happened in 1911.[24] In 1913 Albright and Wilson also started making red phosphorus at Niagara Falls.[21]

The strike-anywhere match

Early friction matches made with white phosphorus as well as those made from phosphorus sesquisulfide could be struck on any suitable surface. They were particularly popular in the United States even when safety matches had become common in Europe.[22] Strike-anywhere matches are classified as dangerous goods, "U.N. 1331, Matches, strike-anywhere;" and their carriage is illegal on both passenger aircraft and cargo-only aircraft.[25]

The safety match

"Household" safety matches

The dangers of white phosphorus in the manufacture of matches led to the development of the "hygienic" or safety match. The major innovation in its development was the use of red phosphorus, not on the head of the match but instead on a specially designed striking surface. The idea was developed in 1844 by the Swede Gustaf Erik Pasch (1788–1862) and was improved by Johan Edvard Lundström (1815–1888). Pasch patented the use of red phosphorus in the striking surface. He found that this could ignite heads that did not need to contain white phosphorus. Johan Edvard and his younger brother Carl Frans Lundström (1823–1917) started a large scale match industry in Jönköping around 1847, but the improved safety match was not introduced until around 1850–55. The Lundström brothers had obtained a sample of red phosphorus from Arthur Albright at The Great Exhibition, held at The Crystal Palace in 1851[26] but had misplaced them and did not try the matches until just before the Paris Exhibition of 1855 when they found that they were still usable.[26] In 1858 their company produced around 12 million match boxes.[22]

The safety of true "safety matches" is derived from the separation of the reactive ingredients between a match head on the end of a paraffin-impregnated splint and the special striking surface as well as the replacement of white phosphorus with red phosphorus. The striking surface is composed of typically 25% powdered glass or other abrasive material, 50% red phosphorus, 5% neutralizer, 4% carbon black and 16% binder; and the match head is typically composed of 45–55% potassium chlorate, with a little sulfur and starch, a neutralizer (ZnO or CaCO3), 20–40% of siliceous filler, diatomite and glue.[27] Some heads contain antimony(III) sulfide so that they burn more vigorously. Safety matches ignite due to the extreme reactivity of phosphorus with the potassium chlorate in the match head. When the match is struck the phosphorus and chlorate mix in a small amount forming something similar to the explosive Armstrong's mixture which ignites due to the friction.

The Swedes long held a virtual worldwide monopoly on safety matches, with the industry mainly situated in Jönköping, in 1903 called Jönköpings & Vulcans Tändsticksfabriks AB.[28] In France, they sold the rights to their safety match patent to Coigent Père & Fils of Lyon, but Coigent contested the payment in the French courts, on the basis that the invention was known in Vienna before the Lundström brothers patented it.[28] The British match manufacturer Bryant and May visited Jönköping in 1858 to try to obtain a supply of safety matches, but it was unsuccessful. In 1862 it established its own factory and bought the rights for the British safety match patent from the Lundström brothers.[28]

Safety matches are classified as dangerous goods, "U.N. 1944, Matches, safety," and they are not universally forbidden on aircraft; however, they must be declared as dangerous goods and individual airlines and/or countries may impose tighter restrictions.[25]

Special-purpose matches

Extra-long matches, used for lighting fireplaces in extra safety.

Storm matches, also known as lifeboat matches or flare matches, have an easy to strike tip like a normal match, but much of the stick is coated with a combustible compound which will keep burning even in a strong wind. They have a wax coating to make them waterproof, making them a component of many survival kits. This particular match was used in the first mass-produced Molotov cocktails.

Matchbooks and matchboxes

The development of a specialized "matchbook" with both matches and a striking surface did not occur until the 1890s with the American Joshua Pusey, who later sold his patent to the Diamond Match Company. The Diamond Match Company was later bought by Bryant and May.

The hobby of collecting match-related items, such as matchcovers and matchbox labels, is known as phillumeny.

Fires due to lit matches

  • The Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942, the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history, was started when an artificial palm tree caught fire as a busboy struck a match[citation needed] for illumination while changing a light bulb.
  • The King's Cross fire was a devastating underground fire in London on 18 November 1987 which killed 31 people. Evidence considered at the Public Enquiry into the fire concluded that it was initiated by rubbish and grease beneath wooden escalators being ignited, and that this was likely caused by a lighted match being dropped.[29] Smoking was banned on the Underground; there had been 48 previous escalator fires between 1955 and 1988, 31 of which were caused by smoking materials, and tests had shown that a lit match, but not a cigarette, could ignite the grease.[30]
  • A 10-year-old boy playing with matches started the Buckweed Fire, of the October 2007 California wildfires. With a series of wildfires blazing across the southern part of the state, Buckweed burned over 38,000 acres (150 km2) of land and 63 structures.[31]

See also


  1. ^ a b Anonymous (1999). Concise Oxford Dictionary (10 ed.). London: Oxford University Press. 
  2. ^ Sawyer, C. W. (1910). Firearms in American history 1600–1800. p. 5. 
  3. ^ a b Barnett, E. de Barry (1919). Rideal, Samuel. ed. Explosives. New York: D. Van Nostrand Company. pp. 158,162–170. 
  4. ^ Whiter W (1825). Etymologicon universale: or, Universal etymological dictionary. 2. p. 428. 
  5. ^ a b c Temple, Robert (1986). The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.. p. 98. ISBN 0671620282. 
  6. ^ 陶谷《清异录·器具》篇载:“夜中有急,苦于作灯之缓,有智者批杉条,染硫黄,置之待用,一与火遇,得焰穗然,既神之,呼引光奴,今遂有货者,易名火寸。”
  7. ^ a b c d Crass, M. F., Jr. (1941). "A history of the match industry. Part 1". Journal of Chemical Education 18 (3): 116–120. doi:10.1021/ed018p116. 
  8. ^ Carlisle, Rodney (2004). Scientific American Inventions and Discoveries. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. p. 275. ISBN 0471244104. 
  9. ^ Wisniak, Jaime (2005). "Matches—The manufacture of fire" (PDF). Indian Journal of Chemical Technology 12: 369–380. 
  10. ^ a b c Crass, M. F., Jr. (1941). "A history of the match industry. Part 3". Journal of Chemical Education 18 (6): 277–282. doi:10.1021/ed018p277. 
  11. ^ a b Tomlinson, C. (1898). "The Inventor of Lucifer Matches". Notes and Queries 8 (4): 70–71. 
  12. ^ Brewis, W, Parke (1909). "Archaeologia aeliana, or, Miscellaneous tracts relating to antiquity". Archaeologia Aeliana. Third series 6: xix. 
  13. ^ Lewis R. Goldfrank; Neal Flomenbaum (2006). Goldfrank's toxicologic emergencies. McGraw-Hill Professional. pp. 1486–. ISBN 978-0-07-147914-1. Retrieved 19 November 2011. 
  14. ^ a b c "János Irinyi". Hungarian Patent Office. Retrieved 2008-03-18. 
  15. ^ "Development of matches". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2008-03-18. 
  16. ^ Hughes, J. P. W; Baron, R.; Buckland, D. H., Cooke, M. A.; Craig, J. D.; Duffield, D. P.; Grosart, A. W.; Parkes, P. W. J.; & Porter, A. (1962). "Phosphorus Necrosis of the Jaw: A Present-day Study: With Clinical and Biochemical Studies". Brit. J. Industr. Med. 19 (2): 83–99. PMC 1038164. PMID 14449812. 
  17. ^ a b c Crass, M. F., Jr. (1941). "A history of the match industry. Part 9". Journal of Chemical Education 18: 428–431. 
  18. ^ Oliver, Thomas (1906). Industrial disease due to certain poisonous fumes or gases. 1. Manchester University Press. 1–21. 
  19. ^ Kohn, Moritz (1944). "The discovery of red phosphorus (1847) by Anton von Schrötter (1802–1875)". J. Chem. Educ. 21 (11): 522, 554. doi:10.1021/ed021p522. 
  20. ^ a b c Threfall (1951), "Chapter IX: The Second generation: 1880–1915: part II: The Private Limited Company
  21. ^ a b c d Threfall (1951)
  22. ^ a b c Crass, M. F., Jr. (1941). "A history of the match industry. Part 5". Journal of Chemical Education 18 (7): 316–319. doi:10.1021/ed018p316. 
  23. ^ Charnovitz, Steve (1987). "The Influence of International Labour Standards on the World Trading Regime. A Historical Overview". International Labour Review 126 (5): 565, 571. 
  24. ^ Moss, David A. (1994). "Kindling a Flame under Federalism: Progressive Reformers, Corporate Elites, and the Phosphorus Match Campaign of 1909–1912". The Business History Review 68 (2): 244–275. doi:10.2307/3117443. 
  25. ^ a b IATA (2007). Dangerous Goods Regulations: Effective 1 January – 31 December 2007. Produced in consultation with ICAO. Montreal: International Air Transport Association. ISBN 92-9195-780-1. 
  26. ^ a b Threfall (1951), Chapter V: "The Foundations, 1855–56: the phosphorus retort"
  27. ^ Phosphorus. Retrieved on 2011-11-19.
  28. ^ a b c Threfall (1951), Appendix A to Chapter V: "The Match Industry"
  29. ^ Fennell, Desmond (1988). Investigation into the King's Cross Fire. Department of Transport / Her Majesty's Stationery Office. ISBN 0-10-104992-7. 
  30. ^ Fennell, Desmond (1988). "Appendix J: A Review of Recent Serious Escalator Fires and the Oxford Circus Station Fire". Investigation into the King's Cross Fire. Department of Transport / Her Majesty's Stationery Office. ISBN 0-10-104992-7. 
  31. ^ "Police: Boy playing with matches started 38,000-acre (150 km2) fire". CNN. 2001-10-31. Retrieved 2007-11-13. 


  • Threlfall, Richard E., (1951). The Story of 100 Years of Phosphorus Making: 1851–1951. Oldbury: Albright & Wilson Ltd.

Further reading

  • Beaver, Patrick, (1985). The Match Makers: The Story of Bryant & May. London: Henry Melland Limited. ISBN 0-907929-11-7.
  • Emsley, John, (2000). The Shocking History of Phosphorus: A Biography of the Devil's Element. Basingstoke: Macmillan Publishing. ISBN 0-333-76638-5.
  • Steele, H. Thomas (1987). Close Cover Before Striking: The Golden Age of Matchbook Art. Abeville Press.

External links

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