History of Chemical Matches

Chemistry of Making Fire Using Matches

A match uses a chemical reaction to produce a flame.
A match uses a chemical reaction to produce a flame. Tim Oram, Getty Images

If you need to start a fire do you rub sticks together or break out your handy flint? Probably not. Most people would use a lighter or a match to start a fire. Matches allow for a portable, easy-to-use source of fire. Many chemical reactions generate heat and fire, but matches are a fairly recent invention. Matches are also an invention you probably wouldn't choose to duplicate if civilization ended today or you were stranded on a desert island. The chemicals involved in modern matches are generally safe, but that wasn't always the case:

1669 [Hennig Brand or Brandt, also known as Dr. Teutonicus]

Brand was an Hamburg alchemist who discovered phosphorus during his attempts to turn base metals into gold. He allowed a vat of urine to stand until it putrefied. He boiled the resulting liquid down to a paste, which he heated to a high temperature, so that the vapors could be drawn into water and condensed into... gold. Brand didn't get gold, but he did obtain a waxy white substance that glowed in the dark. This was phosphorus, one of the first elements to be isolated other than those which exist free in nature. Evaporating urine produced ammonium sodium hydrogen phosphate (microcosmic salt), which yielded sodium phosphite upon heating. When heated with carbon (charcoal) this decomposed into white phosphorus and sodium pyrophosphate:
(NH4)NaHPO4 —› NaPO3 + NH3 + H2O
8NaPO3 + 10C —› 2Na4P2O7 + 10CO + P4
Although Brand tried to keep his process a secret, he sold his discovery to a German chemist, Krafft, who exhibited phosphorus throughout Europe. Word leaked out that the substance was made from urine, which was all Kunckel and Boyle needed to work out their own means of purifying phosphorus.

1678 [Johann Kunckel]
Knuckel successfully made phosphorus from urine.

1680 [Robert Boyle]

Sir Robert Boyle coated a piece of paper with phosphorus, with a separate splinter of sulfur-coated wood. When the wood was drawn through the paper, it would burst into flame. Phosphorus was difficult to obtain at that time, so the invention was only a curiosity. Boyle's method of isolating phosphorus was more efficient than Brand's:

4NaPO3 + 2SiO2 + 10C —› 2Na2SiO3 + 10CO + P4

1826/1827 [John Walker, Samuel Jones]

Walker serendipitously discovered a friction match made from antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate, gum, and starch, resulting from a dried blob on the end of a stick used to stir a chemical mixture. He didn't patent his discovery, though he did show it to people. Samuel Jones saw the demonstration and started to produce 'Lucifers', which were matches marketed to the Southern and Western U.S. states. Lucifers reportedly could ignite explosively, sometimes throwing sparks at a considerable distance. They were known to have a strong 'firework' odor.

1830 [Charles Sauria]

Sauria reformulated the match using white phosphorus, which eliminated the strong odor. However, the phosphorus was deadly. Many people developed a disorder known as 'phossy jaw'. Children who sucked on matches developed skeletal deformities. Phosphorus factory workers got bones diseases. One pack of matches contained enough phosphorus to kill a person.

1892 [Joshua Pusey]

Pusey invented the matchbook, however, he placed the striking surface on the inside of the book so that all 50 matches would ignite at once. The Diamond Match Company later purchased Pusey's patent and moved the striking surface to the exterior of the packaging.

1910 [Diamond Match Company]

With a worldwide push to ban the use of white phosphorus matches, the Diamond Match Company got a patent for a non-poisonous match which used sesquisulfide of phosphorus. U.S. President Taft requested that Diamond Match give up their patent.

1911 [Diamond Match Company]

Diamond yielded their patent on January 28, 1911. Congress passed a law placing a prohibitively high tax on white phosphorus matches.

Present Day

Butane lighters have largely replaced matches in many part of the world, however matches are still made and used. The Diamond Match Company, for example, makes more than 12 billion matches a year. Approximately 500 billion matches are used annually in the United States.

An alternative to chemical matches is fire steel. Fire steel uses a striker and magnesium metal to produce sparks which may be used to start a fire.


  • Crass, M. F., Jr. (1941). "A history of the match industry. Part 5." Journal of Chemical Education. 18 (7): 316–319. doi:10.1021/ed018p316
  • Hughes, J. P. W; Baron, R.; Buckland, D. H., Cooke, M. A.; Craig, J. D.; Duffield, D. P.; Grosart, A. W.; Parkes, P. W. J.; & Porter, A. (1962). "Phosphorus Necrosis of the Jaw: A Present-day Study: With Clinical and Biochemical Studies." Br. J. Ind. Med. 19 (2): 83–99. doi:10.1136/oem.19.2.83
  • Wisniak, Jaime (2005). "Matches—The manufacture of fire." Indian Journal of Chemical Technology. 12: 369–380.
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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "History of Chemical Matches." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, thoughtco.com/history-of-chemical-matches-606805. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2021, July 29). History of Chemical Matches. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-chemical-matches-606805 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "History of Chemical Matches." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-chemical-matches-606805 (accessed March 22, 2023).