Malachite’s Big Hole
Prior to the invention of Lucifers, or friction matches, fires were started using flint and steel, a burning glass (on sunny days), or rubbing sticks. These methods are quick and reliable in the hands of someone proficient in their use (and anyone who relied on these methods would indeed become proficient), however, they were not always convenient or practical. For example it is virtually impossible to light a candle or oil lamp directly using these methods.
Early Instantaneous Lights
The earliest “matches” utilized compounds or mixtures of chemicals which would spontaneously combust in the atmosphere or when mixed. As can be imagined, without proper storage and handling these matches were quite dangerous to use. One of the earliest devices was known as a “Phosphorus Bottle” or “Pocket Luminary.” The device consisted of a small bottle with an air tight lid which contained white phosphorus. When a fire was desired, a wooden splint was inserted into the bottle and a small amount of white phosphorus was scraped onto the splint. When withdrawn and exposed to air, the phosphorus would ignite.
Concentrated sulfuric acid is a powerful oxidizer. In 1805 Chancel utilized this oxidizer to create a “match” which could be better controlled than white phosphorus scraped out of a bottle. The ends of cedar-wood splints were coated with a mixture of potassium chlorate and sugar. The sulfuric acid was contained in a glass bottle on a wick of asbestos. To start a fire, the coated end of the splint was placed in the bottle with the sulfuric acid. On being withdrawn from the box the “match” would burst into flame. These were known as “Instantaneous Light Boxes” and were later marketed under the name “Empyrions.” These were anything but reliable and one contemporary account states “Instead of a brilliant flame, the match smouldered (sic) and spurted acid about to the detriment of clothes and a peaceful disposition.”
In 1828 Samuel Jones patented the “Prometheans” which utilized the same principal as the “Instantaneous Light Boxes.” The device consisted of a small cardboard tube containing a mixture of potassium chlorate and sugar and a sealed glass bead containing concentrated sulfuric acid. When the tube was crushed, the glass bead would break releasing sulfuric acid to mix with the potassium chlorate and sugar, and the device would ignite. These devices were also marketed as “Vesuvians.” Sulfuric acid matches were referred to in general as “Chemical Matches” or as “Oxymuriated Matches”
In 1827 an English chemist/druggist named John Walker, began selling a form of friction match, sometimes known as “Friction Lights.” The matches were made by dipping wooden splints in sulfur, and then dipping the tip in a paste made from potassium chlorate, sugar and antimony trisulfide. To ignite the match, the tip was drawn through a fold of fine sandpaper. The match was not reliable; often times not igniting, and at other times a glob of molten material would fly off to land on carpeting or clothing. These matches were banned in Germany and France because they were considered to be too dangerous for everyday use.
Walker is credited with inventing the friction match, although his devices contained no phosphorus. In 1830 Samuel Jones was selling a version of the “Friction Lights” in London under the name of “Lucifers” a term which became a popular generic name for matches. Jones was the first to sell matches in small rectangular cardboard boxes. Because the sulfur based matches gave off large quantities of noxious fumes the following warning was printed on the side of Jones’ matchboxes: “If possible, avoid inhaling gas that escapes from the combustion of the black composition. Persons whose lungs are delicate should by no means use the lucifers.”
Matches using potassium chlorate, sugar and antimony trisulfide were soon to be replaced by more reliable matches utilizing a phosphorus-oxidizer mixture. Between 1830 and 1834 white phosphorus based matches were developed independently by multiple individuals in multiple countries. J.F Kammerer in Germany, Charles Sauria in France and J Nos Irinyi in Hungary are credited with developing white phosphorus based matches. In the United States a patent was granted to A.D Philips in 1836.
The white phosphorus based matches often were manufactured with a sulfur tip which was then coated with a phosphorus-oxidizer composition. These matches were not entirely safe, and would sometimes spontaneously combust. In the United States such matches were often stored in metal “match safes.”
Besides having a tendency to spontaneously combust, white phosphorus had toxic effects on workers exposed daily to the element. Phossy jaw, formally known as phosphorus necrosis of the jaw, was an often fatal occupational hazard for those in the match industry. Chronic exposure to white phosphorus vapor caused an accumulation of phosphorus in the jaw bones and teeth and could also cause brain damage. Afflicted Workers would suffer painful toothaches and swelling of the gums. Over time, abscesses would develop in the jaw bone, which was both painful and disfiguring to the patient, and repellent to others, since drainage from the dying bone tissue was exceedingly foul-smelling. The jawbones would gradually rot away and would actually glow a greenish-white color in the dark. Death from organ failure would soon follow. Because of the harmful effects of exposure to white phosphorus, a safer form of phosphorus was sought.
In 1844, Anton Schrötter produced red phosphorus, which was not toxic and lacked the tendency to spontaneously combust, by heating white phosphorus.
Various attempts were now made to utilize red phosphorus in production of a safer match. The first successful safety match was produced 1855.
So did Mountain Men use Lucifer matches? They certainly had access to them, the fur trade inventories of the Rocky Mountain Outfit of Fontenelle Fitzpatrick and Co, 1836, show that at least in this year 16 dozen were sent to rendezvous. Because these would have been the white phosphorus Lucifers, they would have been unreliable, unstable and unsafe. They were probably a novelty item rather than intended for actual use under field conditions.
For more information about the history of matches see the following reference:
M.F. Crass, A History of the Match Industry, J. Chem. Educ., 18, part 1 116-120, part 2 277-282, part 3 316-319, part 4 380-384, part 5 428-431, 1941