Lighting a lucifer to celebrate the invention of the friction match

The 1st of May, besides being International Workers Day, is also the day in 1859 that the Englishman John Walker, inventor of friction matches, died.

Walker’s matches, developed in 1826, were small wooden sticks with the tip coated in sulphur with a mixture of potassium chlorate, antimony sulphide and sugar, bound together with gum arabic. He arrived at this mixture after several previous failed attempts. Walker, recognising the potential of his invention, started selling his matches, packaged in boxes of 50 together with a folded piece of sandpaper as a striking surface. Even though he never patented his invention, he managed to earn a good income through the sale of his matches.

Lighting a modern day safety match - much safer than lighting John Walker's 1826 friction matches!  (© All Rights Reserved)
Lighting a modern day safety match – much safer than lighting John Walker’s 1826 friction matches!
(© All Rights Reserved)

John Walker wasn’t the first guy to come up with the idea of friction matches – some 10 years earlier in 1816, Frenchman Francois Derosne attempted something similar, using sulphur-tipped sticks that had to be scraped inside a phosphorous-lined tube. Derosne was, however, unable to make his matches stable enough to be practically viable.

While Walker’s matches worked better than those of Derosne, they were still quite unstable and flammable, and sometimes flaming balls of the ignition mixture dripped from the lit match, burning holes in clothing, carpets etc. This led to them being banned in France and Germany.

Over the next few years, many improvements were introduced to Walker’s friction matches. Most early versions were still volatile, lighting with a strong chemical reaction, burning with unsteady flames, and casting sparks over quite a distance. These early matches came to be known as ‘lucifers’ – a term that persisted into the 20th century and is still used in some countries.

It took almost 20 years before the modern-day safety match was developed in 1844. The main innovation in the safety match lay in the striking surface rather than the match. By including red phosphorous in the striking surface, the ignition mixture on the match could be made less volatile. The safety match was perfected and commercialised by Swedish brothers Johan Edvard and Carl Frans Lundstrom, who sold around 12 million boxes of matches between 1851 and 1858.

Sweden remained the home of safety matches until the start of the 20th century, with the safety matches as we know it today, still being very similar to those developed in the 1850’s.

So next time you light a match, think about the fact that you’re using an invention that is almost 170 years old!

Celebrating the Bunsen burner, a staple in every chemistry lab

So it’s the last day of March, and we celebrate Bunsen Burner Day. Anyone who did chemistry in high school will remember the trusty Bunsen burner, a staple tool in avery chemistry lab, and more often than not a key part in some seriously derailed chemistry experiments.

In addition to heating chemicals, the intense flame of a Bunsen burner can also be used to sterilise laboratory tools.(© All Rights Reserved)
In addition to heating chemicals, the intense flame of a Bunsen burner can also be used to sterilise laboratory tools.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Bunsen Burner Day is celebrated on 31 March in honour of Robert Wilhelm Eberhard von Bunsen (31 March 1811 – 16 August 1899), German chemistry professor and inventor of various pieces of laboratory equipment, including the Bunsen burner. The science behind the way a Bunsen burner works is similar to that used in gas stoves and gas furnaces. The burner is connected via a tube to a container with flammable gas, and as the burner is opened, the gas flows through a small hole in the bottom of the burner’s barrel. Openings in the side of the tube allow air into the gas stream, and the mixture is ignited by a spark or flame at the top of the tube. The amount of air mixed in with the gas can be controlled by opening or closing the gaps at the base of the barrel – as the amount of air is increased up to an optimal point, the combustion becomes more complete, resulting in a hotter flame – as it heats up, the flame becomes blue and transparent, becoming almost invisible at its optimal level.

To this day, Bunsen burners remain a laboratory staple, and it is used on a daily basis in literally thousands of laboratories around the world.