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John Walker
(29 May 1781 - 1 May 1859)

English chemist and inventor who originated and manufactured friction matches. He sold them from 7 Apr 1827 in boxes of 50 for a shilling.



from Pharmaceutical Journal (1871)

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John Walker
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O Lucifer, how art thou fallen!
Only one penny per box!

[p.21] The history of the means of getting a light is full of interest in whatever aspect it be viewed; perhaps more interesting to pharmacists than to ordinary mortals, seeing how intimately each step in advance is associated with the progress of chemical and physical discovery; how much the match trade of the last forty years has been connected with the trade of the chemist and the part which has been taken in the development of the same by men well known amongst us. Leaving to our contemporaries the treatment of this subject in its commercial and mechanical aspects, we propose to sketch briefly the chemical history of the art of kindling a flame, from the time when old women were given to making matches to the present day, when the lads and lasses, have a good deal of the work in their own hands.

When the first fire was lighted, and who lit it, are questions over which physics and divinity might quarrel without coming to a conclusion; but looking to nations (if our modesty will permit us) which are too young in civilization to wear any clothes, we commonly hear of their fires being ignited by rubbing two dry sticks together till the heat of friction produced fire. The mode of rubbing which is capable of producing sufficient of that “mode of motion” which is known as heat, is difficult of acquirement; and though most of us have tried the experiment in our school days, he was thought very successful who could produce smoke enough to make his eyes water; it is doubtful whether success might have rewarded our efforts, even had we attended to Pliny’s recommendation, “rub the wood of the ivy with that of the laurel,” so much do we lose the arts of former times when modern inventions enable us to attain our ends with less labour. These dry frictions were only slowly displaced by the use of the flint and steel, which depend on the same physical principle. A small particle of a hard metal being struck being struck off from the mass by the edge of a stone harder than itself, the particle was always hot, frequently hot enough to enter into active combustion; this, however, produced a short-lived spark, which was only available if received upon some substance very readily ignited and of small conducting power, the material most approved for this purpose being tinder, a charcoal produced by the imperfect combustion of old linen. When the young spark was well received he seldom failed to kindle a match—the matches for this purpose being slips of wood, ten times as large as the lucifers of the present day, pointed at one or both ends and dipped in sulphur. The tinder-box, with its flint and steel, though a great advance upon the friction woods of the early ages, was often troublesome, especially in damp weather, when the tinder absorbed moisture and was slow to ignite. Substitutes for it were constantly sought, but for a century and a half the numerous inventions failed to displace the tinder-box from its post on the kitchen mantelshelf.

Phosphorus, which was discovered about two hundred years ago, kindled the hopes of the fire-seekers, but for a long time it did not kindle much else, for it was very expensive and very dangerous to handle. So lately as fifty years ago nothing else was known in practice but flint and steel, phosphorus matches not being introduced commercially till 1834, and being prohibited in several of the German States on account of their danger up to the year 1840; but during the time phosphorus was in abeyance, much was done with other materials.

Doebereiner, and his wonderful lamp, may claim our first notice. The lamp consisted of a bell-glass immersed in sulphuric acid, and having a piece of zinc suspended in it, so that it generated hydrogen, until the accumulated gas having displaced the acid stopped further action. The bell was fitted with a cock; and a. piece of spongy platinum, the latter being usually attached to a little piece of mechanism, by which it was brought in front of the cock at the moment the gas was turned on; the gas was thus ignited, and in turn lighted a candle placed in front of it.

Doebereiner’s lamp stands quite apart from the other fire-producing contrivances. It depends upon the power possessed in a small degree by many bodies, but in an eminent degree by platinum, of so condensing certain gases upon its surface as to enable them to exercise their chemical affinities much more energetically than in the free or uncondensed state, and depends upon this property being so much exalted by the reduction of the platinum to a spongy condition, that it becomes incandescent when exposed to a mixture of hydrogen and air.

The pyrophori, which were made by heating tartrate of lead, or a mixture of potash, alum and organic matter, in close vessels till they ceased to give off inflammable gases, depended also for their fire generation upon a finely divided metal mixed with carbon; but in this case the metal had not a mechanical but a chemical affinity for oxygen, and as soon as exposed to the air the absorption of oxygen was so rapid as to produce a smouldering combustion.

Phosphorus bottles, which were in vogue during the early days of phosphorus, were too dangerous, both in their production and use, to be much more than philosophical toys. They were made by melting together phosphorus and sulphur in a bottle (which it is said was sometimes blown to pieces in the operation), the sulphide of phosphorus thus produced being readily ignited by friction. The light which was obtained by dipping a splinter of wood into the compound, and thus lifting out sufficient to produce the desired fire by rubbing upon any convenient surface; or a bottle, when lined with phosphorus alone, or mixed with one-fourth of wax, was capable of igniting a common sulphur match, if rubbed upon its inner surface.

[p.41] About the beginning of the nineteenth century chlorate of potash, with its wonderful oxygen-yielding power, came to the aid of the match manufacturer, and small sulphur matches, with a tip of chlorate and sugar, were ignited by touching them against the stopper of a phial of oil of vitriol. The matches were usually sold in tin boxes, with a division to hold the phial of acid, the whole being known as a chemical fire-box. Several accidents occurred from leakage of the acid, and consequent ignition of the whole boxful of matches, until the expedient was adopted of putting asbestos into the phial, and only so much acid upon it as it would absorb.

One of these old boxes is labelled thus:—

“Without Phosphorus.
Improved Fire Box
For obtaining immediate
Directions.—Dip the match sharply into the bottle, and instantly withdraw it.
Anderson’s Place, Cornwall Road, London.”

The bottle was supplied with asbestos, the chemist being expected to add the oil of vitriol at the time of sale. Matches, upon a modification of the same principle, were afterwards introduced under the name of Prometheans. They consisted of spiral cones of waxed paper, with a drop of a pasty mass of moist chlorate of potash and sugar inserted into the open end of the cone, and immersed in this mass a capillary glass tube, in which a very small portion of oil of vitriol was hermetically sealed. When dry, the match could be ignited by striking the end with any hard body, so as to break the tube, and thus bring the acid in contact with the chlorate. These matches were introduced by a Mr. Jones, of the Strand. They were usually sold in hard turned-wood boxes, and were ignited by holding the tip of the match upon the table and striking it with the bottom of the box. They were, in many respects, very good matches, but were necessarily expensive, being sold (to within the last twenty-five years) at 2s. 6d. per hundred. They are very permanent; some, which are now more than twenty-five years old, igniting as well as when new.

Besides chlorate of potash and sugar, sulphide of antimony sometimes entered into the composition used in tipping matches for chemical fire-boxes, and it was no doubt a compound of that nature, the precise materials of which, however, I have not been able to ascertain, which led to the production of the friction match, which was first made by Mr. Walker, chemist and druggist, of Stockton, in 1827. He had been making a composition for tipping matches to be used with oil of vitriol. Having stirred the same with a slip of wood, some of the composition adhered to it; this, when dry, he accidentally ignited by striking it against the hearthstone. Thus, a happy accident suggested to him the practicability of making matches which should ignite by friction without the use of oil of vitriol. His matches consisted of thin slips of wood about two inches and a half long and about the thickness of cardboard tipped with his newly-discovered composition.* They were sold in cardboard boxes, containing fifty matches, and a piece of sand-paper for igniting them, the price being a shilling. The sandpaper was folded with the rough surfaces inwards, and the match was ignited by placing the tip between these rough surfaces, and suddenly withdrawing it, while gentle pressure was applied. It is said that Mr. Walker paid three-halfpence apiece for the empty boxes, which were made for him by a bookbinder in Stockton. As this was a very important step in advance, and made by a pharmacist, we may not inappropriately quote the following notices of him.

In Richmond's local records of Stockton and neighbourhood, occurs the following:—

“May, 1, 1857. Died at Stockton, Mr. John Walker, aged 78. He was for many years a druggist at that place, and was the inventor of friction matches, the sale of which he commenced in April, 1827, charging one shilling per box, each box containing fifty lucifers.”

A correspondent in the Newcastle Daily Chronicle supplies the following from the London Atlas newspaper of January 10, 1830, headed “Instantaneous Light”:—

“Amongst the different methods invented for obtaining a light instantaneously ought certainly to be recorded that of Mr. Walker, chemist, Stockton-onTees. He supplies the purchaser with prepared matches, which are put into tin boxes, but are not liable to change in the atmosphere, and also with a piece of fine glass-paper folded in two. Even a strong blow not inflame the matches, because of the softness of the wood underneath, nor does rubbing upon wood or any common substance produce any effect except that of spoiling the match; but when one is pinched between the folds of the glasspaper, and suddenly drawn out, it is instantly inflamed. Mr. Walker does not make them for extensive sale, but only to supply the small demand in his own neighbourhood.”

“The above,” adds the same writer, “is placed under ‘Scientific Notices,’ and we thus gain a glimpse of the first introduction of lucifer matches to supersede the flint, steel, and tinder-box recess. In 1830, and for many years previous, Mr. Walker occupied a small shop at the corner of Dovecot Street, Stockton, and is well remembered in the locality as a gentleman of the old school, dressed in drab breeches and gaitors, and always sporting a particularly clean white apron. Mr. Walker afterwards removed to larger and more prominent premises in the High Street, being next door to Mr. Thomas Jennett, printer. In 1830 these matches were sold at half-a-crown per box, and remained for some time at the above price; but as the demand increased the cost was reduced, and sixpence per box was considered a moderate charge for many years. Those who professed to be ‘knowing’ upon the subject declared old Walker made a handsome thing out of the discovery, inasmuch as he kept the secret of manufacture as long as possible to himself.”

These matches, the tips of which were composed of sulphide of antimony and chlorate of potash, [p.42] required so much friction for their ignition, that the tips were frequently pulled off or worn orff before the match took fire, a fault which was remedied some six or seven years later by the use of phosphorus.

Dr. Moldenhauer and Dr. Boettger are spoken of as amongst the most successful workers in the production of phosphorus matches, the composition used by the latter being as follows:—

5Red Lead

The glue being softened with water, and melted in a warm mortar, the phosphorus was stirred in somewhat in the manner of making an emulsion, the temperature used being (140° F.) a few degrees above the melting-point of phosphorus (108° F.). When these were thoroughly mixed, the nitre and colours were added, and a soft, uniform paste produced, with which the matches were tipped after having been first tipped with sulphur.

Phosphorus does not readily communicate its combustion to wood, probably on account of the phosphoric acid produced condensing upon and protecting carbonaceous or fixed materials from the action of the air; thus arises the necessity for the use of sulphur or some other volatilizable substance which is rendered gaseous and ignited by the heat of the burning phosphorus, and can readily communicate its combustion to the wood.

To avoid the unpleasant smell of sulphurous acid, the sulphur was replaced by wax or stearine in the better qualities of matches; the mode of impregnating the tips of the splints with these substances being to press the end of a bundle of them upon a hot iron plate till the wood began to char, and dipping them while thus heated into a tray of melted wax. Camphor was added to the wax by Mr. Bell.

In 1861, Mr. Letchford patented the use of paraffin for the same purpose, the object being to find a material capable of attaining this end, and sufficiently cheap to be used to the common descriptions of matches.

Chlorate of potash, which was indispensable in the early forms both of dipping and friction matches, was not only not essential. but in some respects disadvantageous in union with phosphorus. Nitrate of potash was found to give a quieter and less explosive combustion. The ease with which the phosphorus compounds ignited enabled manufacturers to use soft materials, which would not have borne the rough usage to which Mr. Walker's original friction matches were necessarily subjected. Thus, wax vestas and fusees of soft brown paper, or amadou1 impregnated with nitrate of potash, were added to the owing number of varieties.

After the use of phosphorus had been considerably developed, it was found that the operatives exposed to its vapours were frequently attacked with painful swellings and inflammation of the lower jaw, sometimes resulting in mortification and exfoliation of the bone. The disease was known as phosphonecrosis. Though a careful attention to cleanliness and ventilation is enough to prevent the occurrence of this malady, there is no doubt that the great suffering it had inflicted upon some of the workpeople acted as one of the inducements to adopt amorphous phosphorus, when that body was made known by Schrotter. He exposed phosphorus, in closed vessels, to a temperature of about 500° F., and found that it was changed in many of its most prominent qualities. It had become opaque, and of a dark red colour; it had ceased to be volatile and fusible; it had lost its tendencies to undergo slow combustion at low temperatures, and was no longer poisonous. But while it had lost many of the objectionable qualities possessed by phosphorus in its ordinary condition, it had also lost some of the qualities which gave phosphorus an advantage over other materials for match-manufacture,—matches of amorphous phosphorus being more difficult to ignite and burning with a sputtering flame, which qualities have hitherto prevented their coming into general use.

But Dr. Boettger, who had devoted much attention to the improvement of match manufacture, suggested in 1848 that the amorphous phosphorus might be made into a friction surface, to be used for igniting matches, tipped with a chlorate compound not capable of ignition by simple rubbing upon an ordinary rough surface. Attempts to carry out this suggestion were made with partial success by various German and French manufacturers during the years 1854 and 1855; but it was not till Messrs. Bryant and May, in August, 1855, patented a modification of this principle that these “safety matches” attained any popularity in England.

Another form of safety match was introduced in 1859 by Messrs. Devilliers and Dalemagne. Each match was tipped at both ends, one end having the chlorate and the other the amorphous phosphorus, and to ignite them the match was broken in two, and one end rubbed against the other,—an arrangement more fanciful than advantageous.

The consumption of matches has increased enormously since the facilities for their production led to a reduction in their price. About five-and-twenty years ago a witty dealer adopted for his placard the lines at the head of this paper :—

“O Lucifer! how art thou fallen!
Only one penny per box!”

Lucifer has continued to fall ever since, and yet we may say almost all varieties of lucifers are above the price of rubies—Bryant and May's “ Rubies;” red-tipped matches of a very cheap quality, being sold at 2s. 6d. per gross of boxes. This price, low as it is, is not more surprising than the great number produced,—the above firm making daily no less than 1250 gross of boxes of this quality alone, that is about thirteen millions of matches per day.

It might be supposed that, with so great a production and so small a price, there was not scope for further progress in this manufacture; yet the very magnitude of the craft gives a prospect of ample remuneration to any one who can devise an improvement in the quality or greater economy in any department of the work. Various suggestions have been made which have not yet been carried out, but some of which will no doubt afford a handsome profit to any one, be he chemist or manipulator, who finds the means of making them practically available. For example, the proportion of phosphorus formerly used was about one-seventh of the tipping composition, but has been considerably reduced by being more finely divided; and it is said that, by dissolving the phosphorus in bisulphide of carbon, it may be reduced to 1/300th of the quantity now [p.43] commonly employed; and Wiederhold has shown that, in the experimental scale at least, good matches may be made with chlorate of potash and hyposulphite of lead, without the use of phosphorus at all.

* Probably it consisted of two parts of sulphide of antimony and one of chlorate of potash made into paste with gum water, this being the composition known to be in use a short time afterwards.

[1 Amadou is a spongy, flammable substance prepared from bracket fungi.—Webmaster]

Engraving of John Walker, not in original text, added from source shown above. Text from The Pharmaceutical Journal and Transactions (8 Jul 1871), 2, No. 1, 21 & 41-43. (source)

See also:
  • 29 May - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Walker's birth.

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