History of Matches: Using Phosphorous and Sulfur to Make Fire


Matches are a throwaway item in today’s society, but they have been about for more than 180 years and were a revolutionary invention in their time.

Robert Boyle, an Irish physicist, created the first thing that could be thought of as a match in 1669. He coated a piece of paper with phosphorous and a small piece of wood with sulfur. When he rubbed the paper across the wood, he created a fire.

However, though he had all of the elements, Boyle failed to create a match.

Who Created the First Match?

Most accounts list Englishman John Walker as the creator of friction matches in 1827. However, Jacob Weller of Maryland manufactured matches in 1825 and he got the idea from French matches.

Walker made his matches on yard-ling sticks and called them “sulphretted peroxide strikables.”

What Made the First Matches Work?

Walker used antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate, gum and starch in his formula. The match stick is dipped in the formula and allowed to dry. It will then ignite when the stick is struck against a surface.

The matches quickly became popular among smokers, but they had a bad odor when burning.

A Different Match

One type of match was different from the design that Walker used. A Promethean match introduced in 1828 had a small glass bulb containing sulfuric acid and coated with potassium chlorate, sugar and gum and then wrapped in paper.

A person bit down on the glass bulb to strike the match.

Changes to Early Matches

A French chemist, Charles Suria, altered the formula and used white phosphorous in 1830. The new matches had no odor but they made people sick because white phosphorous is poisonous.

In 1855, Johan Edvard Lundstrom of Sweden put red phosphorous on the sandpaper ouside of the match box while leaving the other ingredients on the match head. The eliminated the problem of sickness.

Matchbooks were invented in 1889 by Joshua Pusey. The idea came because he was embarrassed by how far a box of wooden matches stuck out of his suit. Using paper as the matchstick was his way to make matches less bulky. Pusey called these matchbook matches “flexibles.”

Diamond Match also developed something similar around the same time. In 1895, Diamond Match was making 150,000 matchbooks a day.

Diamond Match

Diamond Match Company developed and patented a match that used sesquisulfide instead of phosphorous. Thus, it became the first non-poisonous match.

“United States President William H. Taft publicly asked Diamond Match to release their patent for the good of mankind. They did on January 28, 1911, Congress placed a high tax on matches made with white phosphorous,” Mary Bellis wrote in her article, “History of Matches.”