The Event:


On 7 April 1827, from his shop at 59, High Street, Stockton in Tees, John Walker sold something that he recorded in his sales book as ‘Sulphurata Hyper-Oxygenata Frict’. It was not the most easy-to-remember name for a product.


‘On 7 September 1827 he recorded another sale – this time describing the item sold as ‘friction lights’.


Apart from three recorded sales during 1828 under the name of ‘attrition lights’ all other recorded sales were for ‘friction lights’.


John Walker was selling what we now call ‘matches’.


Walker, a man born in Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham, on 1781, is credited as the inventor of the friction match.


Walker went to the local grammar school and was afterwards apprenticed to Watson Alcock, the principal surgeon of the town serving him as an assistant. He had, however, an aversion to surgical operations, and had to leave the profession, turning instead to chemistry. After studying at Durham and York, he set up a small business as a chemist and druggist at 59 High Street, Stockton, around 1818.


He developed a keen interest in trying to find a means of obtaining fire easily. Several chemical mixtures were already known which would ignite by a sudden explosion, but it had not been found possible to transmit the flame to a slow-burning substance like wood. While Walker was preparing a lighting mixture on one occasion, a match which had been dipped in it took fire by an accidental friction upon the hearth. He at once appreciated the practical value of the discovery and started making friction matches.


Walker’s first friction matches were made of cardboard but he soon began to use wooden splints cut by hand. Later he packaged the matches in a cardboard box equipped with a piece of sandpaper for striking They consisted of wooden splints or sticks of cardboard coated with sulphur and tipped with a mixture of sulphide of antimony, chlorate of potash, and gum, the sulphur serving to communicate the flame to the wood.


The price of a box of 50 matches was one shilling. With each box was supplied a piece of sandpaper, folded double, through which the match had to be drawn to ignite it. He named the matches “Congreves” in honour of the inventor and rocket pioneer, Sir William Congreve. He did not divulge the exact composition of his matches. His sales books contain an account of no fewer than 250 sales of friction matches.




Walker died in Stockton on May 1, 1859 and is buried in the grounds of St Mary’s Church in Norton.


The Significance:


John Walker invented the world’s first friction match.


Until then the process of creating fire was slow and laborious. The friction match provided a means of starting a fire which was easy, quick, portable.


However, Walker was only credited with his invention after his death.


Despite advice, from Michael Faraday amongst others, to patent his invention, Walker did not do so. He possibly did not do so because he was already happy with his standard of living.


As a result, others were able to exploit his invention commercially and even claim the credit for its discovery.


In October 1829 Isaac Holden arrived, independently, at the same idea of coating wooden splinters with sulphur, and Samuel Jones of London produced an exact copy of Walkers “Friction Lights” and launched his own “Lucifers” in 1829.


Matches were first patented in the United States of America in 1836. They were smaller in size and safer to use than those sold by Walker, replacing the antimony sulfide in Walker’s matches with white phosphorus. A French chemist, Charles Sauria, had invented the first phosphorus-based match in 1830.


White phosphorus was later banned for public usage because of its toxicity. Today’s modern matches were created by the Swedish chemist, Gustaf Erik Pasch.




Suggested Places to Visit:


High Street, Stockton on Tees

Preston Hall Museum, Eaglescliffe

St Marys Church, Norton