The History and Science of Friction Matches
A friction match is a device that can produce fire by rubbing a flammable material against a rough surface. Friction matches revolutionized the way people light fires, but they also caused health problems for the workers who made them.
The first friction match was invented by John Walker, a British pharmacist, in 1826. He discovered that a paste made of antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate and gum arabic could ignite when scraped on a rough surface. He dipped wooden splints in this paste and coated them with sulfur. He sold these matches as “friction lights” from 1827 onwards, but he never patented his invention.
Other inventors soon copied and improved Walker’s matches. Samuel Jones of London marketed his matches as “Lucifers” in 1829. Some of the early matches used white phosphorus, a highly reactive and toxic substance, as an igniting agent. White phosphorus could be ignited by striking it on any surface, making these matches convenient but also dangerous.
White phosphorus also posed a serious health risk for the match workers, who were mostly women and children. They were exposed to the fumes of white phosphorus for long hours in poorly ventilated factories. Many of them developed a condition called “phossy jaw”, which caused severe bone decay and infection in the jaw. Some of them died from organ failure or blood poisoning.
Public outcry and labor activism led to the banning of white phosphorus matches in many countries by the end of the 19th century. Safer alternatives, such as red phosphorus and sesquisulfide matches, were developed and became widely used. Today, friction matches are still used for various purposes, such as lighting candles, stoves and fireworks.
Friction matches are an example of how a simple invention can have a profound impact on society and culture. They also illustrate the importance of ethical and responsible innovation that considers the welfare of both consumers and producers.
How Friction Matches Work
A friction match consists of three basic parts: a head, a tinder and a handle. The head contains the chemicals that react with each other when struck on a rough surface. The tinder is a material that catches fire easily and transmits the flame to the handle. The handle is usually made of wood or cardboard and provides support and grip for the match.
The most common type of friction match today is the safety match, which has a head made of potassium chlorate, sulfur, starch and glue. The head also contains a small amount of red phosphorus, which is safer than white phosphorus. The red phosphorus is embedded in the glue and does not react until it is exposed to air by friction. The striking surface of the matchbox contains powdered glass and antimony sulfide, which generate heat and sparks when rubbed with the match head. The sparks ignite the red phosphorus, which in turn ignites the potassium chlorate. The potassium chlorate produces oxygen, which fuels the combustion of sulfur and starch. The flame then spreads to the tinder and the handle.
Friction matches are based on the principle of exothermic reactions, which release heat and energy. The heat and energy are sufficient to overcome the activation energy, which is the minimum amount of energy required to start a chemical reaction. By lowering the activation energy, friction matches make it easier to produce fire on demand.