A chemist and druggist from Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham. He developed a keen interest in trying to find a means of obtaining fire easily. Several chemical mixtures were already known which would ignite by a sudden explosion, but it had not been found possible to transmit the flame to a slow-burning substance like wood. While Walker was preparing a lighting mixture on one occasion, a match which had been dipped in it took fire by an accidental friction upon the hearth. He at once appreciated the practical value of the discovery, and started making friction matches. They consisted of wooden splints or sticks of cardboard coated with sulphur and tipped with a mixture of sulphide of antimony, chlorate of potash, and gum. The treatment with sulphur helped the splints to catch fire, and the odor was improved by the addition of camphor.
The price of a box of 50 matches was one shilling. With each box was supplied a piece of sandpaper, folded double, through which the match had to be drawn to ignite it. He named the matches “Congreves” in honour of the inventor and rocket pioneer, Sir William Congreve. He did not divulge the exact composition of his matches. Between 1827 and 1829, Walker made about 168 sales of his matches. It was however dangerous and flaming balls sometimes fell to the floor burning carpets and dresses, leading to their ban in France and Germany. Walker either did not consider his invention important enough to patent or neglected it.
In 1829, Scots inventor Sir Isaac Holden invented an improved version of Walker’s match and demonstrated it to his class at Castle Academy in Reading, Berkshire. Holden did not patent his invention and claimed that one of his pupils wrote to his father Samuel Jones, a chemist in London who commercialised his process. A version of Holden’s match was patented by Samuel Jones, and these were sold as lucifer matches. These early matches had a number of problems – an initial violent reaction, an unsteady flame and unpleasant odor and fumes. Lucifers could ignite explosively, sometimes throwing sparks a considerable distance. Lucifers were manufactured in the United States by Ezekial Byam. The term “lucifer” persisted as slang in the 20th century (for example in the First World War song Pack Up Your Troubles) and matches are still called lucifers in Dutch.
Packing girls at the Bryant & May factory.
Lucifers were however quickly replaced after 1830 by matches made according to the process devised by Frenchman Charles Sauria who substituted the antimony sulfide with white phosphorus.These new phosphorus matches had to be kept in airtight metal boxes but became popular. In England, these phosphorus matches were called “Congreves” after Sir William Congreve while they went by the name of loco foco in the United States. The earliest American patent for the phosphorus friction match was granted in 1836 to Alonzo Dwight Phillips of Springfield, Massachusetts.
From 1830 to 1890, the composition of these matches remained largely unchanged, although some improvements were made. In 1843 William Ashgard replaced the sulfur with beeswax, reducing the pungency of the fumes. This was replaced by paraffin in 1862 by Charles W. Smith, resulting in what were called “parlor matches”. From 1870 the end of the splint was fireproofed by impregnation with fire-retardant chemicals such as alum, sodium silicate, and other salts resulting in what was commonly called a “drunkard’s match” that prevented the accidental burning of the user’s fingers. Other advances were made for the mass manufacture of matches. Early matches were made from blocks of woods with cuts separating the splints but leaving their bases attached. Later versions were made in the form of thin combs. The splints would be broken away from the comb when required.
A noiseless match was invented in 1836 by the Hungarian János Irinyi, who was a student of chemistry. An unsuccessful experiment by his professor, Meissner, gave Irinyi the idea to replace potassium chlorate with lead dioxide in the head of the phosphorus match. He liquefied phosphorus in warm water and shook it in a glass vial, until it became granulated. He mixed the phosphorus with lead and gum arabic, poured the paste-like mass into a jar, and dipped the pine sticks into the mixture and let them dry. When he tried them that evening, all of them lit evenly. He sold the invention and production rights for these noiseless matches to István Rómer, a Hungarian pharmacist living in Vienna, for 60 forints (about 22.5 oz t of silver). As a match manufacturer, Rómer became rich, and Irinyi went on to publish articles and a textbook on chemistry, and founded several match factories.
The idea of creating a specially designed striking surface was developed in 1844 by the Swede Gustaf Erik Pasch. Pasch patented the use of red phosphorus in the striking surface. He found that this could ignite heads that did not need to contain white phosphorus. Johan Edvard and his younger brother Carl Frans Lundström (1823–1917) started a large-scale match industry in Jönköping, Sweden around 1847, but the improved safety match was not introduced until around 1850–55. The Lundström brothers had obtained a sample of red phosphorus matches from Arthur Albright at The Great Exhibition, held at The Crystal Palace in 1851,but had misplaced it and therefore they did not try the matches until just before the Paris Exhibition of 1855 when they found that the matches were still usable. In 1858 their company produced around 12 million matchboxes.