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The Devilish Invention That Lit the World: John Walker's Friction Match

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

#56 Science in History

7th April 1827


Today in 1827, English pharmacist John Walker sells his first matches in Stockton-on-Tees, England. Apparently, he sold them in a tin to a Mr Hixon, a solicitor.

Walker had discovered his friction match*(“friction light”) in 1826. He noticed that a stick coated with certain chemicals would ignite when scraped against a rough surface, and he went on to develop a reliable and convenient means of starting fires that could be easily carried in a pocket or purse. This invention revolutionized the way people started fires, and it is still in use today.


Although credited with the invention of the friction match, other inventors had also been working on similar ideas around the same time. For example, in 1805, French chemist Jean Chancel had created a match that used sulfuric acid to ignite a mixture of potassium chlorate and antimony sulfide. However, Walker's invention was the first practical and commercially successful friction match - easy to use, reliable, and inexpensive (well… eventually, when production processes improved!), which made them very popular when he began selling them in his pharmacy.


His first matches were called "strike-anywhere" matches - they could be lit by striking them against any rough surface. The name "Lucifer" for a match was coined by one of John Walker's customers. According to historical accounts, a man walked into Walker's pharmacy and asked for a box of the new friction matches. He was so impressed with the product that he exclaimed, "This is a devilish good invention!" When he returned to buy more, he asked for a box of "Lucifers", referring to the biblical name for Satan, which means "light-bringer". The name stuck and became a common term for matches in the 19th century.


*The early friction matches were notoriously dangerous - they could easily ignite in pockets or purses. It wasn't until the safety match was invented in the 1850s that the risk of accidental fires was significantly reduced.




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