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Etymology

The word “match” derives from Old French “mèche” referring to the wick of a candle.

Early matches

A predecessor of the modern match, small sticks of pinewood impregnated with sulfur were used in China in AD 577. Besieged by military forces of Northern Zhou and Chen, Northern Qi court ladies were out of tinder and needed a way to start fires for cooking and heating.5 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 sulfur 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’.56

Prior to the use of matches, fires were obtained using a burning glass (a lens) to focus the sun on tinder, a method that could only work on sunny days, or by igniting tinder with sparks produced by striking flint and steel. Early work had been done by alchemist Hennig Brandt, who discovered the flammable nature of phosphorus in 1669.7 Others, including Robert Boyle and his assistant, Godfrey Haukweicz, continued these experiments in the 1680s with phosphorus and sulfur, but their efforts did not produce practical and inexpensive methods for generating fires.8 Matches of various kinds began to appear in Europe by about 1530.5 But the first modern, self-igniting match was invented in 1805 by Jean 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. The match was ignited by dipping its tip in a small asbestos bottle filled with sulfuric acid.3 This kind of match was expensive and its usage was dangerous, so Chancel’s matches did not become common. In London, matches meant for lighting cigars were introduced in 1849 by Heurtner who had a shop called the Lighthouse in the Strand. One version that he sold was called “Euperion” (sometimes “Empyrion”) which was popular for kitchen use and nicknamed as “Hugh Perry” while another meant for outdoor use was called a “Vesuvian” (a similar version of which was patented by Samuel Jones in 1828 as a “Promethean”).9 The Vesuvians or “flamers” were designed to work out of doors. The head was large and contained niter, charcoal and wood dust, and had a phosphorus tip. The handle was large and made of hardwood so as to burn vigorously and last for a while. Some even had glass stems.10 Vesuvians and Prometheans had a bulb of sulfuric acid at the tip which had to be broken with pliers to start the reaction.11 Samuel Jones introduced fuzees for lighting cigars and pipes in 1832. A similar invention was patented in 1839 by John Stevens in America. In 1832, William Newton patented the “wax vesta”, a wax stem that embedded cotton threads and had a tip of phosphorus. Variants known as “candle matches” were made by Savaresse and Merckel in 1836.Read more

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