This Day in History (7-Apr-1827) – English chemist John Walker invents wooden matches

JohnWalker, after schooling at Stockton-on-Tees  served a local doctor for a while as an assistant-surgeon, before finding out that he cannot accustom himself to the sight of blood and surgical operations. However, time spent as assistant-surgeon brought him closer to chemistry, which pushed him to study that subject at Durham and York. After spending several years learning pharmacy and apprenticing as wholesale druggists, he returned home and opened his own shop as “chemist and druggist”. He was one of the rare pharmacists in town who worked not only with natural ingredients, but also with many chemical substances which were not used much in human or animal medicine back then.

Experimenting with various chemical elements finally bore fruits when he discovered that cardboard strips dipped in a mixture of potassium chloride and stibnite and then allowed to dry would ignite when scraped rapidly against sandpaper.  This breakthrough led him to create first simple prototypes of matches which were made from cardboard sticks. By 1827 he started selling those matches what were called “friction lights”, and came to be called “lucifers” in slang, who instantly became very popular in his home town. By changing the design of the sticks into three inch long wooden splints, he soon received offers of purchase from neighboring towns and started selling more and more. Sadly, his design was not perfect, and because of that he never wanted to patent it. Sulfur on the head of the stick sometimes burned so brightly and hotly, that it managed to detach itself and fall on the floor, damaging either carpet or even clothes of the people who were wielding the match.

Since he did not obtain a patent, Walker received neither fame nor wealth for his invention of the now-common match. Sir Isaac Holden was widely credited with inventing the match until both Holden and Walker were dead, but the original ledger from Walker’s shop was subsequently found, which shows that Walker was selling his matches for at least two years before Holden began making matches of a similar chemical compound. The invention managed to create first version of items that would spread across entire world and change the way we look at the fire.



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