Friction matches are ordinary matches. Strike them against a flint or, for some types, any hard service and they start a fire. Friction Matches were invented by Englishman John Walker in 1827.

While it seems hard to believe it took so long before the innovation of matches by Walker people would have to find a fire to start another. One predecessor match involved encasing flammable chemicals in small glass beads that, when broken, would ignite wrapped paper. Since these could easily break by accident, and even when used correctly tended to erupt into flames, they were dangerous.

Other early attempts at matches used phosphorous which, as every high-school student learns in chemistry class, ignites when exposed to air. Which is fine in a chemistry lab but not so fine in an 18th-century wooden house.

Walker invented his match in 1827. Unlike others, it used tips coated with potassium chloride-antimony sulfide paste. Which is a long-winded way of saying they were inexpensive, safe, and easy to use. They only lighted afire when struck in a specific way.

Already wealthy, Walker purposefully decided not to patent the match and released the innovation for the public good.

Other businesses eventually released safer and more reliable versions of patented matches. Most notably, Austrian Anton von Scrötter discovered red phosphorous in 1845, a type of phosphorous that did not spontaneously combust. Combined with a specialized striking head invented a decade later, this became the safety match still in use today.

Before safety matches — or any matches for that matter — people would use flints or embers that were more difficult to light a fire with. It’s notable that despite the necessity of fire and its widespread use, matches were a relatively recent invention. Gas-powered lamps, invented in 1792, were widely used before matches were invented. Voltaic pile batteries were powering telegraph machines and railroads were carrying people and equipment. All the while people were still starting fires no differently than they had dating back to caveman times.

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