Strike A Light! I've Created Flames

Artist Sarah Pickering stands before her 38 metre-wide print of the first match
Artist Sarah Pickering stands before her 38 metre-wide print of the first match

by Ray Setterfield


May 1, 1859 — After the light finally went out for chemist and friction match inventor John Walker, he was buried on this day in the churchyard of the North-East England town where he was born and spent most of his life.

Walker opened his own shop as a “chemist and druggist” in 1819 when he was 38 years old.

He worked not only with natural ingredients but also with many chemical substances and after a while he created a paste that could burst into flame when scraped on a rough surface.

This accidental breakthrough led him to create simple matches made from cardboard sticks. He soon abandoned the cardboard, replacing it with three inch long wooden splints. Later he packaged the matches in a cardboard box equipped with a piece of sandpaper for striking.

He called his invention a “Friction Light” and sold the first from his pharmacy at Stockton-on-Tees in April, 1827. Unfortunately, there were problems with the design of the match. Sulphur on the head of the stick sometimes burned so fiercely that it detached itself and fell, damaging carpets or even clothes of the people who were holding it.

Because of this imperfection, Walker, already comfortably well off, declined to patent his invention despite pressure from friends to do so. He is quoted as saying: "I doubt not it will be a benefit to the public, so let them have it. I shall always be able to obtain sufficient for myself."

Instead, he demonstrated the matches for the amusement of friends and colleagues. One of the observers at a demonstration in London was Samuel Jones who immediately spotted the commercial potential, copied the design and set up a match business in London. He marketed the product as “Lucifers.”

However, like Walker’s Friction Lights the Lucifers were unpredictable, often giving off violent bursts of flame and an extremely noxious odour of sulphur. Boxes of lucifers carried a printed warning: “Persons whose lungs are delicate should by no means use Lucifers.”

This, however, did nothing to diminish their popularity and just as cigarettes were widely termed “fags”, the name “lucifer” became a well-known slang expression for a match.

During the First World War it was used in a popular marching song, “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit-Bag.” In the early days of the war British soldiers would march along singing:

Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag and smile, smile, smile.

While you've a lucifer to light your fag, smile, boys, that's the style.

What's the use of worrying? It never was worth while;

So, pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag and smile, smile, smile.

In 2015, a remarkable 38 metre-wide print of Walker’s Friction Light by artist Sarah Pickering was mounted at a shopping centre in his home town to commemorate the invention.

Published: April 23, 2019

Articles on Events in May