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Got A Light?

English inventor John Walker brought the power of Prometheus to our fingertips.
September 1, 1999

Unless you’ve been shipwrecked or you’re an extremely ill-prepared camper, you’ve probably never had to make a fire without a device for instant ignition. But 200 years ago it was a whole different story: Those in need of warmth, light or a cooking flame had to nurse embers from fire to fire or coax sparks from a flint and hope the tinder caught. An English chemist and druggist named John Walker changed all that with his invention of “Sulphurata Hyperoxygenata Fricts,” the ancestors of today’s everyday match.

Walker’s curiosity was sparked by an 1826 lab accident. He had been mixing a batch of combustible chemicals with a wooden stick and inadvertently scraped the stick on the hearth-the tip flared and the wood caught fire. With further experimentation, he hit on the right recipe for ignition, a blend of potassium chlorate, antimony sulfide and gum, and dipped narrow cardboard stems in the mixture. When drawn through a folded piece of sandpaper, the coated tip would sputter and light.

On April 7, 1827, Walker sold 100 of the new matches in a tin “pillar box” for one shilling two pence. It was his first recorded sale, marked in the ledger above on the line indicated by the white-and-red plastic arrow. A few months later, Walker changed the name of his invention to the more manageable “friction lights,” and began using wooden splints-cut by hand by local paupers and schoolboys-in place of cardboard stems.

As sales increased, Walker’s lights radiated from his store in Stockton, England, and eventually reached the hands of pioneering chemist and physicist Michael Faraday. Faraday implored Walker to patent the device, but the inventor was more philanthropist than entrepreneur, insisting: “I doubt not it will be a benefit to the public, so let them have it.” With no patent protection, and with Faraday publicizing the invention in writings and lectures, others began to manufacture versions of Walker’s lights.

Walker ceased making matches as early as 1830, when a copycat product called the “Lucifer” began gaining popularity. Since his time, match manufacturers have changed the tip’s chemical composition to improve safety and brought back cardboard stems for matchbooks. But all in all, the friction match remains much the same as the first light Walker struck.

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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