John Walker (1781 – 1859)
The ability to summon up fire at will was vital for man’s development and comfort. It was only when we mastered the ability to generate fire that we could cook and keep ourselves warm at night. Rubbing two sticks together was a laborious process and one that was fraught with frustration. Today with our electric and gas cookers and central heating which spring to life at the press of a button, we give little thought to the struggles of our ancestors to get something lit. The only frustration these days is to be found with a smoker whose lighter has packed up or won’t work in the wind.
What was revolutionary and made the creation of fire so much easier was the match. Probably, like me, you don’t know the origin of this handy device but this is where the latest inductee to our illustrious Hall of Fame, John Walker, comes in. Born in Stockton-on-Tees, Walker was initially apprenticed to a surgeon but having developed an aversion to surgical operations, decided to change tack, studied pharmacy and opened up a chemist and druggist business in his home town around 1818.
Being an inquisitive sort of chap Walker was fascinated with the problem of how to create fire. At the time there were a number of mixtures which had been discovered which through their chemical reaction would produce a flame. But no sooner had the flame appeared then it extinguished, leaving the user little time to transfer it to whatever he was trying to set alight. What was needed was a way in which the flame produced by a chemical reaction could be transferred to a slow burning substance such as wood. Once this had been cracked, the user would have more control. This was what Walker cracked his grey cells to solve.
The development of a match came about by chance, as is often the way with discoveries. A piece of wood which had been dipped into some lighting mixture Walker had been preparing caught light when he scraped it against the rough surface of the hearth. This breakthrough led him to create prototype matches, consisting of sticks of cardboard dipped in the lighting mixture. He further refined the match by applying a coating of sulphur to wooden splints about 3 inches long and tipped with a mixture of sulphide of antimony, chlorate of potash and gum, the sulphur essentially transferring the flame to the slower burning wood.
Walker started to sell his invention locally and they were eagerly snapped up. A box of 50 matches would cost you one shilling and with the box came a piece of sandpaper folded in half, through which the match had to be drawn to light it. Walker called his match congreves In honour of the rocket and artillery inventor, William Congreve.
There were some problems with the congreves. The chemical reaction could be extreme and flaming balls could burn brightly and then drop onto the floor burning holes in carpets or, even worse, falling onto clothes and setting them alight. The smell of sulphur was off-putting, although the addition of camphor to the mix made the matches less malodorous.
As you would expect with an inductee to our Hall of Fame, despite this revolutionary discovery, Walker didn’t profit from it. A couple of years after Walker’s matches were launched on the public Isaac Holden developed, independently he claimed, a sulphur match which he started selling widely. Walker refused to patent his invention, despite being able to demonstrate conclusively that he had come up with the idea before Holden, and made it freely available to anyone. He only received the credit for his brilliance after his death.
John Walker, for inventing the sulphur match and not profiting from it, you are a worthy inductee to our Hall of Fame.
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