Matches were developed in the mid-17th Century as a means of more easily starting a fire than rubbing sticks together or forcing friction between rocks in the hope of initiating the spark needed to start a fire. It wasn’t until the early 19th Century, however, that an English chemist named...
Matches were developed in the mid-17th Century as a means of more easily starting a fire than rubbing sticks together or forcing friction between rocks in the hope of initiating the spark needed to start a fire. It wasn’t until the early 19th Century, however, that an English chemist named John Walker developed the formula that would greatly advance the technology behind matches and make them far more useful. Matches are currently constructed two ways, with a wooden stick and with pressed paper, both of which serve as a handle for the user while providing flammable material that helps to sustain the fire once the match is lit. The key to developing a useful match was finding the chemical compound that would easily burn without being inherently unstable and posing a health risk to the laborers manufacturing them. Early matches utilized white phosphorous to enable ignition, and variations of phosphorous continue to be utilized today. White phosphorous, however, was dangerous, and would be used in the manufacture of chemical weapons, which were banned in the early 20th Century.
Matches would be perfected by an American company, the Diamond Match Company, which had been established in 1881. Diamond, and other older American match manufacturers, would build on the work of European scientists and incorporate the use of phosphorous sesquisulfide, which had proved more stable and less toxic to those with whom it came into contact. Over time, as concerns about the dangers inherent in the use of phosphorous continued to grow, and as the abuse of phosphorous compounds for use in weapons became increasingly anathema to many countries, European and American governments imposed restrictions on its use, including in the manufacture of matches. As white phosphorous was phased out, red phosphorous was substituted, with the emphasis on ignition switched from the match head to the surface against which the match head is swiped to create friction.
Matches, of course, continue to be used for a wide variety of uses, ranging from the lighting of cigarettes to the lighting of charcoal grills to the starting of wood fires at campgrounds and in wood-burning fireplaces.