Why do matches burn



The German alchemist Henning Brand discovered phosphorus by chance, because he was actually looking for the formula for gold. In any case, while trying to distill urine and evaporate it, he observed a white vapor that condensed into a greenish, glowing mass.

To Brand's astonishment, the mass began to burn: Phosphorus was discovered - but was only used in the manufacture of matches from the beginning of the 19th century.


The English physicist Robert Boyle coated a small piece of paper with phosphorus and a small piece of wood with sulfur. Then he rubbed the wood on the paper: a fire ignited. Despite this discovery, Boyle had not yet invented a workable, match-like design.


The Frenchman Jean-Louis Chancel invented the first matches that were coated with a mixture of potassium chlorate, sulfur, sugar and gum arabic. Ignition took place by immersing the wood in sulfuric acid, which was housed in a small container. This invention was called "dunking lighter".


John Walker, an English chemist and pharmacist from Stockton-on-Tees, invented the first friction matches. He discovered that a fire started when he coated the end of a stick with certain chemicals, allowed it to dry, and then rubbed it between glass paper.

The chemicals he used were sulfuric acid, potassium chlorate, gum arabic, and starch. Like Chancel, Walker was not yet using phosphorus.


The French chemist Charles Sauria produced matches with white phosphorus. Slight friction against any object produced enough energy to ignite the phosphor. One speaks here of all-round matches. They were practical, but had two major drawbacks: Since only a small amount of energy was required for ignition, they were extremely dangerous.

In addition, their production turned out to be very harmful to the health of the workers in the factories concerned: The so-called phosphorus necrosis manifests itself in bone changes, in special cases it can lead to the loss of the entire lower or upper jaw. It became an occupational disease for workers in the match industry.


In England, Samuel Jones patented his invention of friction matches under number 6335. He made big business by adopting John Walker's invention and selling the matches under the name "Lucifers". This name just became very popular among smokers. The "Lucifers" were relatively harmless, but they left an unpleasant odor when lit.


The Swedish chemist Gustaf Erik Pasch invented the first safety matches with separate ignition and friction compounds and had this invention patented. They soon conquered the world as "Swedish woods".

They were given the name safety matches for the following reason: The reaction partner of the ignition head was no longer just any surface, but only the rubbing surface on the box, which was coated with red phosphorus, a somewhat less dangerous form of phosphorus.


According to the Reich Law of May 13th, white phosphorus was only allowed to be manufactured in Germany under very strict conditions. The use of white phosphorus in matches was later banned altogether.

1884 through 1898 to the present day

Henri Sévène and Emile David Cahen discovered that if phosphorus sesquisulfide was added to the ignition head instead of white phosphorus, matches could be ignited on any rough surface.

These all-round matches are known from countless western films: A cowboy lights the match with a casual movement on his boot. Even today, all-round matches are still occasionally in use. But the safety match has prevailed.

The ignition head of today's safety matches consists of oxygen carriers (potassium chlorate, especially manganese dioxide), easily flammable substances (sulfur), abrasive additives (glass powder) and dyes and binders (animal glue), which can also serve as flame-forming substances. The sticks are usually soaked with paraffin.

WDR | Status: January 24th, 2021, 22:00