Surgery & Sandpaper: The Match Turns 186

"Congreves," the first successful friction matches ever successfully sold.

"Congreves," the first successful friction matches ever successfully sold.

This week we commemorate the 186th anniversary of the first-ever sale of friction matches.

As the story goes, a young Englishman named John Walker had become rather sickened by his surgeon apprenticeship and left the field in 1818 for a less gruesome job as a chemist: something he was apparently (and quite fortunately) good at!

By Walker’s time, a number of chemicals were known to create fire quickly, but none had yet figured out how to keep this quick flame alive and transfer it to a slower burning substance like wood or coal. Walker found himself dedicating many hours in his High Street shop in Stockton-on-Tees to the discovery of such a solution.

One night, after countless trials of chemical solutions,  one sample got onto a match stick and dried. When rubbed against the hearth – apparently by accident – it lit quickly and continued to burn. It was just the solution Walker needed!

He named his new invention “Congreves” after rocket pioneer Sir William Congreve.

Walker his first sale April 7, 1827 – it was 50 pence for 50 Congreves, and it came with a piece of sandpaper to light the match on.

Interestingly enough, Walker never patented his friction matches: he thought they were “too trivial,” and already being well-off, he saw no need to protect them any further.

Samuel Jones was the first to build on Walker’s invention, the most prolific of his creations being the cardboard box he decided to package his “Lucifers” in. The manufacturing of friction matches was first patented in the US in 1836 by Alfonso Phillips. Frenchman Charles Sauria invented a phosphorus-based formula that gave matches a less foul smell. And, in 1855, Swedish inventor Carl Lundstrom introduced the modern, red phosphorus “safety match” – with part of the flammable elements in the tip and the other part in a special striking surface.

The popularity of the friction match has only grown from there – instant fire is one of man’s oldest obsessions and the fact that we use some 500 billion matches a year shouldn’t strike anyone as odd!

So, to honor this simple yet so necessary little invention, we’re sharing 186+ of our favorite classic matchbook & matchbox designs on Pinterest. Which is your favorite?