A predecessor to the matchstick was used in China in the late 6th century. It was made from pine and used sulfur for ignition.
Pine matches dipped in sulfur combusted easily and were therefore convenient for lighting a fire with glowing tinder. This type of matchstick was used and manufactured in great amounts during the Roman era.
The German merchant and alchemist Hennig Brand dreamt of discovering the philosopher’s stone. The philosopher’s stone was, among other things, said to be able to transmute simple metals to gold. In his search for the stone, he heated up and distilled his own urine.
When the fumes had condensed, he noticed there was something glowing in the dark, resembling wax. This strange substance was named phosphorus – the bringer of light.
A hundred years later, the Swedish chemists Carl Wilhelm Scheele and Johan Gottlieb Gahn discovered that phosphorus was present in skeletons and bone ash. Johan Gottlieb Gahn would later discover that phosphorus occurs in natural minerals.
Matches with potassium chlorate
The first modern matchstick was invented by the French chemist Jean Chancel in 1805. The ignition kit consisted of a mix of, among other things, potassium chlorate, sulfur and sugar. The stick came with a bottle of asbestos infused with concentrated sulfuric acid. When the stick was dipped in sulfuric acid, the ignition kit would combust and the stick would catch on fire. Chancel’s invention was much too dangerous for normal use and did not become successful.
The first match made with phosphorus was invented in 1827 by the British chemist and pharmacist John Walker. The ignition kit consisted of a chemical compound which reacted to friction. For this reason, it could be lit against most surfaces. Unfortunately, it also meant it was easily combustible at inopportune moments.
Another problem was that white and yellow phosphorus are poisonous. In higher doses they are fatal. The factory workers, often children, would fall ill with phosphorus necrosis. Teeth fell out, skeletal calcium dissolved, and in more severe cases it would lead to death.