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Lighting up safely: the history of matches

History books tell us that Stone Age people would rub two pieces of flint very hard to produce a fire. Today we just strike a match, and it lights up immediately. Ever wondered how we came this far?

The 'light-bringing slaves'

The first matches in recorded history come from China - a land known for its invention of fireworks. It was known that sulphur, when subjected to mechanical force, ignites instantly. By coating small pine sticks with sulphur, women developed a primitive kind of match. They were so useful that the Chinese poet Tao Gu called them 'light-bringing slaves'.

The invention of the 'noiseless match'

In the Middle Ages, the match travelled from China to Europe. Though being useful, it was still expensive, unreliable and dangerous.

In the 19th century, scientists discovered that matches could be made to light reliably by adding potassium chlorate. When a match is struck, heat is produced due to friction. This causes the potassium chlorate to decompose and release oxygen, which ignites the sulphur.

These matches were still dangerous, as potassium chlorate tends to be explosive. In 1836, Janos Irinyi, a Hungarian chemist, replaced potassium chlorate with lead dioxide, which works in the same way, but is less explosive.

Irinyi sold the invention to Istvan Romer, who set up the first commercial match factories, and these were a great success.

When a match is struck, heat is produced due to friction.This causes the potassium chlorate to decompose and release oxygen, which ignites the sulphur.

White phosphorus and the 'safety match'

Irinyi and Romer's matches contained white phosphorus, a toxic chemical. As match-making spread, many match workers caught a debilitating illness called phossy jaw. A safer alternative was sought.

It was found by the famous scientist J.J. Berzelius who discovered that red phosphorus was equally effective and yet less toxic. His student Gustaf Pasch went a step further by separating the explosive chemicals into the match head and the striking surface. The match head consisted of potassium chlorate mixed with binding agents. The striking surface is coated with red phosphorus. Only when the match is struck against the surface, will it will burst into flame.

Factories for making safety matches were set up in Sweden in 1847 first, but soon spread throughout the world. Matches were packed into boxes, the sides of which formed the striking surface. And this is how safety matches are made even today!

Do you know that collectors of matchboxes are called 'phillumenists'? Here's a video of a phillumenist having fun, of the safe kind!

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Tags :     History and Future     Sulphur     matches     phosphorus     potassium chlorate     lead dioxide    


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