This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

Do You Engage in Phillumeny?


April 7, 1827: John Walker Sells First Friction Match

John Walker was an English chemist who originally served as an apprentice for his town’s surgeon. Problem was, he had an aversion to operations and blood, whoops. So he turned to chemistry.

John_Walker_1781-1859Walker (left) had a strong interest in trying to find an easy way to make fire. In late 1826 he had just finished stirring a pot of chemicals and noticed that the stick he was using had a dried lump of the mixture on it. Instinctively he tried to scrape the substance off and to his surprise, it burst into flame. The strike-able match was born.

Walker's "friction lights" and tin pillar box

Walker’s “friction lights” with tin pillar box

The wooden splints (sticks) were coated with sulfur and tipped with a mixture of sulphide of antimony, chlorate of potash and gum (to stick everything together). Walker began to sell his “friction lights” at a local bookstore. Pasteboard match “sticks” were three inches in length, came in a round “pillar-box” with a small piece of folded sandpaper which the match had to be drawn through. The price of a box of matches was one shilling (about 10 cents in modern terms).

Walker named the matches Congreves, in honor of his hero Sir William Congreve, inventor and rocket pioneer. He initially wouldn’t divulge the exact composition of the matches.

Congreve rocket tip

Congreve rocket tip

William Congreve

William Congreve







Walkers sales book accounts for no fewer than 250 match sales, the first entry April 7, 1827. He refused to patent his invention, despite encouragement by his buddy, Michael Faraday, pioneer of electronics and electric motor technology, (Faraday was also one of Albert Einstein’s heroes). Credit for his invention was not attributed until after his death.

Early "Lucifer" matches circa, 1855

Early “Lucifer” matcher circa, 1855

Walker, however, had no interest and freely demonstrated his new technology to interested inventors. When asked why he didn’t patent his invention, Walker replied, “If they want them, let them have ’em.”

Are you a phillumenist? Are you a person who engages in phillumeny?                           The word is derived from Greek phil- [loving] + Latin lumen- [light]. The hobby of collecting match-related items.

The phrase, “Close Cover Before Striking”, is the most printed phrase in the English language.


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