My watch list  

The Chemistry of Matches


© Compound Interest

The Chemistry of Matches

Matches, as it turns out, have been around for a long time. Sulfur-based matches are mentioned as far back as the 1200s in texts of the time, and in the 1600s a process involving drawing sulfur matches through dried phosphorus-soaked paper was devised. However, the friction matches we’re used to have their origins in the 1800s; the first were developed by the English chemist, John Walker, in 1826. His matches involved a mixture of potassium chlorate, antimony (III) sulfide, gum and starch, which ignited when struck on sandpaper. These matches were somewhat unreliable in whether or not they would successfully strike, however.

In 1830, Charles Sauria, a French chemist, invented the first phosphorus-based match, by replacing the antimony sulfide in Walker’s matches with white phosphorus. Whilst much easier to ignite, these matches, too, had issues. Although they were manufactured over a number of decades, the toxicity of white phosphorus slowly became apparent. The long term exposure to white phosphorus of those making the matches led to ‘phossy jaw’ – an affliction which caused toothaches, major swelling of the gums, disfigurement, and eventual brain damage. The only treatment was the removal of the jaw bone. As more about the toxicity of white phosphorus became known, it was eventually banned in 1906.

  • matches
  • white phosphorous
  • Phosphorus sesquisulfide
  • antimony(III)sulfide
  • potassium chlorate
More about Compound Interest
  • Infographics

    2018’s biggest science stories

    As we head into 2019, it’s time to take a look back at some of the biggest science news stories over the past year. This year’s science news featured water on Mars, the effects of e-cigarettes, new types of isomerism and bonding, and more! 2018 saw a number of significant discoveries in sci ... more

    Unleashing our immune systems against cancer

    The first of the 2018 Nobel Prizes is awarded. The 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo for their discovery of cancer therapy by stimulating the immune system to attack tumour cells. This graphic takes a look at the prize-winning research. more

    The creation of tools made from laser light

    After the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has been awarded, it is physics' turn. The 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Arthur Ashkin, Gérard Morou and Donna Strickland for their pioneering innovations in the field of laser physics. Strickland is only the third woman to recei ... more

Your browser is not current. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 does not support some functions on Chemie.DE