A match is a consumable tool for lighting a fire under controlled circumstances on demand. Matches are readily available, being sold by tobacconists and many other kinds of shops. Matches are rarely sold singly; they are sold in multiples, packaged in match boxes or matchbooks. A match is typically a wooden stick (usually sold in match boxes) or stiff paper stick (usually sold in matchbooks) coated at one end (the match head) with a material often containing the element phosphorus, which will ignite from the heat of friction if rubbed ("struck") against a suitable surface. Gelatin is used as a binder in match heads.

There are two main types of matches: safety matches, which can be struck only against a specially prepared surface; and strike-anywhere matches, for which any solid surface can be used.

Match-type compositions may also be used to produce electric matches, which are fired electrically. These items do not rely on the heat of friction.

History of the term match

match: 1350–1400; Middle English macche (wick) < Middle French meiche, Old French mesche < Vulgar Latin *mesca (lamp wick), metathetic variant of Latin myxa < Greek mýxa, μυξα, (mucus, nostril, nozzle of a lamp)

Historically, the term match referred to lengths of cord, or later cambric, impregnated with chemicals, and allowed to burn continuously. These were used to light fires and set off guns and cannons. Such matches were characterised by their burning speed, e.g. quick match and slow match; depending on their formulation, they could provide burning rates of between, typically, 1 second and 15 seconds per centimetre.

The modern equivalent of this sort of match is the simple fuse, still used in pyrotechnics to obtain a controlled time delay before ignition. The original meaning of the word still persists in some pyrotechnics terms, such as black match (a black powder–impregnated fuse) and Bengal match (a firework producing a relatively long-burning, coloured flame). But, when friction matches were developed, they became the main object meant by the term.

Early matches

A predecessor of the match, small sticks of pinewood impregnated with sulfur, were invented in China in AD 577 by Northern Qi court ladies desperately out of tinder and looking for a means to start fires for cooking and heating while military forces of Northern Zhou and Chen besieged their city from outside. During the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (AD 907–960), a book called the Records of the Unworldly and the Strange written by Chinese author Tao Gu in about 950 stated:

If there occurs an emergency at night it may take some time to make a light to light a lamp. But an ingenious man devised the system of impregnating little sticks of pinewood with sulphur and storing them ready for use. At the slightest touch of fire they burst into flame. One gets a little flame like an ear of corn. This marvellous thing was formerly called a "light-bringing slave", but afterwards when it became an article of commerce its name was changed to 'fire inch-stick'.

Matches also appeared in Europe by about 1530, yet the first modern, self-igniting match was invented in 1805 by K. Chancel, assistant to Professor Louis Jacques Thénard of Paris. The head of the match consisted of a mixture of potassium chlorate, sulfur, sugar, and rubber. They were ignited by dipping the tip of the match in a small asbestos bottle filled with sulfuric acid. This kind of match was quite expensive and its usage was dangerous, so Chancel's matches never gained much popularity.

Friction matches

The first "friction match" was invented by English chemist John Walker in 1827. Early work had been done by Robert Boyle in the 1680s with phosphorus and sulfur, but his efforts had not produced useful results. Walker discovered a mixture of antimony(III) sulfide or stibnite, potassium chlorate, gum, and starch could be ignited by striking against any rough surface. Walker called the matches congreves, but the process was patented by Samuel Jones and the matches were sold as lucifer matches. The early matches had a number of problems - the flame was unsteady and the initial reaction was disconcertingly violent; additionally, the odor produced by the burning match was unpleasant. It is described as a firework odor. Despite these problems, the new matches were responsible for a marked increase in the number of smokers . Lucifers reportedly could ignite explosively, sometimes throwing sparks at a considerable distance. In the Netherlands matches are still called lucifers.

In 1830, Frenchman Charles Sauria added white phosphorus to remove the odor. These new matches had to be kept in an airtight box but were popular. Unfortunately, those involved in the manufacture of the new matches were afflicted with phossy jaw and other bone disorders, and there was enough white phosphorus in one pack to kill a person. There was a vociferous campaign to ban these matches once the dangers became known.

Noiseless matches

The noiseless match was invented in 1836 by the Hungarian János Irinyi, who was a student of chemistry. An unsuccessful experiment by his professor, Meissner, gave Irinyi the idea to replace potassium chlorate with lead dioxide in the head of the phosphorus match. He liquefied phosphorus in warm water and shook it in a glass foil, until it became granulated. He mixed the phosphorus with lead and gum arabic, poured the paste-like mass into a jar, and dipped the pine sticks into the mixture and let them dry. When he tried them that evening, all of them lit evenly. Irinyi thus invented the noiseless match and sold the invention to István Rómer, a match manufacturer. Rómer, a rich Hungarian pharmacist living in Vienna, bought the invention and production rights from Irinyi, the poor student, for 60 forints. The production of matches was now fully underway. István Rómer became richer off Irinyi's invention, and Irinyi himself went on to publish articles and a textbook on chemistry and founded several match factories.

Reformulation to remove white phosphorus

The early matches, including the Noiseless match, were dangerous to both the users and the people making them. This was due to the use of white phosphorus.

The search for a replacement for white phosphorus led to what was known as the safety match. However, this term is now confusing as it covers both the modern safety match and the modern strike anywhere match. These two different types of matches are discussed separately below.

Both of these types of matches were more expensive to make than white phosphorus-based matches, and customers continued to buy white-phosphorus based matches. Laws prohibiting the use of white phosphorus in matches generally had to be passed before these safer types of matches came into widespread usage. Finland banned white-phosphorus based matches in 1872; Denmark in 1874; Sweden in 1879; Switzerland in 1881 and the Netherlands in 1901.

An agreement, the Berne Convention, was reached at Berne, Switzerland, in 1906 to prohibit the use of white phosphorus in matches. This required each country to pass laws prohibiting the use of white phosphorus in matches. Great Britain passed a law in 1908 prohibiting its use in matches after 31 December 1910. The United States did not pass a law, but instead placed a punitive tax on white-phosphorus based matches in 1913. India and Japan banned them in 1919; and China in 1925.

Safety matches

The safety match was invented in 1844 by the Swede Gustaf Erik Pasch and was improved by John Edvard Lundström a decade later.

Their safety is due to the separation of the combustible ingredients between a match head on the end of a paraffin-impregnated splint and a special striking surface; and the replacement of white phosphorus with red phosphorus. The striking surface is composed of typically 25% powdered glass, 50% red phosphorus, 5% neutralizer, 4% carbon black and 16% binder; and the match head is typically composed of 45-55% potassium chlorate, with a little sulfur and starch, a neutralizer (ZnO or CaCO3), 20-40% of siliceous filler, diatomite and glue. Some heads contain antimony(III) sulfide so they burn more vigorously. Safety matches ignite due to the extreme reactivity of phosphorus with the potassium chlorate in the match head. When the match is struck the phosphorus and chlorate mix in a small amount forming something similar to the explosive Armstrong's mixture which ignites due to the friction.

The Lundström brothers - James and Gray - had obtained a sample of red phosphorus from Arthur Albright at The Great Exhibition, held at The Crystal Palace in 1851, and made safety matches with it. They misplaced the matches and did not try them until just before the Paris Exhibition of 1855. They were still usable.

The Swedes long held a virtual world-wide monopoly on safety matches, with the industry mainly situated in Jönköping. In France, they sold the rights to their safety match patent to Coigent Père & Fils of Lyon, but Coigent contested the payment in the French courts, on the basis that the invention was known in Vienna before the Lundström brothers patented it. The British match manufacturer Bryant and May visited Jönköping in 1858 to try to obtain a supply of safety matches but were unsuccessful. In 1862 they set up their own factory and bought the rights for the British safety match patent from the Lundström brothers.

Safety matches are classed as dangerous goods, "U.N. 1944, Matches, safety", and they are not universally forbidden on aircraft; however, they must be declared as dangerous goods and individual airlines and/or countries may impose tighter restrictions.

Strike anywhere matches

Two French chemists, Savene and Cahen, developed a safety match using phosphorus sesquisulfide. They proved that the substance was not poisonous, that it could be used in a "strike anywhere" match and that the match heads were not explosive. They patented a safety match composition in 1898 based on phosphorus sesquisulfide and potassium chlorate. Albright and Wilson developed a safe means of making commercial quantities of phosphorus sesquisulfide in the United Kingdom in 1899 and started selling it to match makers.

In 1901 Albright and Wilson started making phosphorus sesquisulfide at their Niagara Falls plant for the U.S. market, but American manufacturers continued to use white phosphorus based matches. The Niagara Falls plant stopped making it until 1910, when the United States Congress forbade the shipment of white phosphorus matches in interstate commerce. At the same time the largest producer of matches in the USA granted free use, in the USA, of its phosphorus sesquisulfide safety match patents. In 1913 Albright and Wilson also started making red phosphorus at Niagara Falls.

Strike-anywhere matches are classed as dangerous goods, "U.N. 1331, Matches, strike anywhere"; and their carriage is forbidden on both passenger aircraft and cargo-only aircraft.

Special purpose matches

Storm matches (also known as lifeboat matches or flare matches), a component of many a survival kit, have a strikeable tip like a normal match but much of the remainder of the stick is coated with a combustible compound which will keep burning even in a strong wind. They have a wax coating to make them waterproof.

Bengal matches are small hand-held fireworks akin to sparklers. They are similar to storm matches in form but include compounds of strontium or barium in the compound on the stick to produce a red or green flame respectively.


The development of a specialised matchbook with both matches and a striking surface did not occur until the 1890s with the American Joshua Pusey, who later sold his patent to the Diamond Match Company. The Diamond Match Company was later bought by Bryant and May.

The hobby of collecting match-related items, such as matchcovers and matchbox labels, is called phillumeny.

Fires due to lit matches

  • The Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942, the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history, was started when an artificial palm tree caught fire when a busboy struck a match for illumination while changing a light bulb.
  • The King's Cross fire was a devastating underground fire in London on 18 November 1987 which killed 31 people. It was caused by rubbish and grease beneath wooden escalators being ignited, probably by a discarded match.
  • A 10-year-old boy started the Buckweed Fire, of the October 2007 California wildfires, by playing with matches. With a series of wildfires blazing across the southern part of the state, Buckweed destroyed over 38,000 acres of land and 63 structures.



  • Beaver, Patrick, (1985). The Match Makers: The story of Bryant & May. London: Henry Melland Limited. ISBN 0-907929-11-7.
  • Emsley, John, (2000). The Shocking History of Phosphorus: A biography of the Devil's element. Basingstoke: Macmillan Publishing. ISBN 0-333-76638-5.
  • Threlfall, Richard E., (1951). The story of 100 years of Phosphorus making: 1851 - 1951. Oldbury: Albright & Wilson Ltd.
  • Oxford (1999). Concise Oxford Dictionary. Tenth Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Steele, H. Thomas (1987). Close Cover Before Striking: The Golden Age of Matchbook Art. Abeville Press.

See also

External links

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