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March 6, 2001

A public radio commentary

Herbert Spencer, a great philosopher in the 19th century, once pontificated on matches. He said that "the [friction match was the] greatest boon and blessing that had come to mankind in the nineteenth century." Indeed until Spencer's time keeping a flame alive was a central problem of life.

If it went out the best way to make a fire was the tinder box. That is a metal box containing a piece of flint, a block of metal, and the tinder - a dry flammable material like charred linen, dried fungi, or feathers. The hopeful fire builder struck the flint on the metal to pare off a tiny flaming fragment, which fell upon the tinder, igniting it. Charles Dickens claimed that by this method on a damp day one might get a light in half an hour "with luck."

For most people this tinder box was the only way to make a flame until the early 1800s when John Walker, an English pharmacist, invented the friction match. He covered a sliver of wood with some chemicals so that if the head were nipped between folds of fine sandpaper it ignited - more often than not, as long as the head didn't fall off. But the matches were expensive, unreliable and difficult to strike. And they made a noxious puff of smoke that smelled like rotten eggs. One brand called Lucifers - from the Latin for "bringer of light" - came with a warning: "If possible, avoid inhaling gas ... Persons whose lungs are delicate should by no means use the Lucifers."

The next big step for matches and humankind was a simple chemical: Phosphorus. It had been discovered centuries before matches; its highly ignitable, you can light it just by striking it on something. But it was expensive because it was made from animal urine, it took barrels just to make a single ounce of ignitable phosphorus. So, for decades the rich would carry a small box of phosphorus and amuse their friends with its ignition. But then phosphorus was discovered in the bones of animals - and so could be made cheaply.

Yet it still presented problems: Used on matches it was too easy to ignite - it exploded violently. A Swede solved this explosion problem by inventing safety matches. He put the explosive phosphorus in the sandpaper outside of the box. When dragged along the box the chemicals on the match's head reacted with the phosphorus in the sandpaper to make a flame.

A flame that was considered miraculous at the time, and is now mundane. We can even mark the year when striking a match became commonplace and was no longer an awe inspiring event: In 1889 the first matchbooks appeared with advertisements on them.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises