From earlier times, in all parts of the world, people have made fire by rubbing a hard stick against a soft stick so that soft flakes of wood, sloughed off by the hard stick, stick started to smoulder. Another way was to use flint, a very hard stone, striking it against a lump of iron to produce sparks.
Until the eighteenth century, the only improvement on these primitive methods was the tinder box, which contained a piece of steel, flint and some dry tinder for the sparks to ignite. Tinder was often pieces of charred linen or silk; sometimes even dried fungus. The process of raising a spark could be very time-consuming, especially if the tinder was cold and damp.
Matches were first invented as a method of transferring the flame from the smouldering tinder to where it was needed. Splinters of pine were used, their ends dipped in sulphur, which flared easily and made dangerous fumes. It is thought that the Chinese used similar sulphur matches as long ago as the sixth century. For a time sulphur matches were cheap and popular, but still the tinder box was needed to make the initial spark. All over Europe scientists were trying to do away with the need for the tinder box.
The first real breakthrough came in 1827 when English chemist John Walker invented a match with all the fire-producing compounds in its head. He called them ‘friction lights’, because the flame was created by friction, and soon the idea was taken up by large manufacturers who made them in their millions.
However, with friction lights there was a danger that they would ignite accidentally. A Swedish scientist came up with the idea of the chemicals on the match head and the rest on the side of the box. The match would ignite when struck against the box.