Who Invented Safety Matches?
Safety matches were invented by Johan Edvard Lundström and his younger brother Carl Frans Lundström of Sweden in 1855. They had been made possible ten years earlier by the discovery of red phosphorus by Anton von Schrötter, an Austrian chemist. Unlike the white phosphorus used in matches at that time, red phosphorus is not poisonous and does not ignite spontaneously in air. The principle of the safety match is the separation of the ingredients necessary to create fire, one part being left in the head of the match and the other part on the striking surface of the matchbox.
Lundström brothers put the red phosphorus on the friction surface and the other ingredient, potassium chlorate, in the match head. White phosphorus continued to be popular for matches because of its keeping qualities under different weather conditions. But the outcry caused by the discovery of the serious poisonous effects (phossy jaw) it had on match workers led to the prohibition of such matches in most developed countries at the beginning of the 20th Century.
The major innovation in its development was the use of red phosphorus, not on the head of the match but instead on a specially designed striking surface. Arthur Albright developed the industrial process for large-scale manufacture of red phosphorus after Schrötter’s discoveries became known. By 1851, his company was producing the substance by heating white phosphorus in a sealed pot at a specific temperature. He exhibited his red phosphorus in 1851, at The Great Exhibition in London.
The idea of creating a specially designed striking surface was developed in 1844 by the Swede Gustaf Erik Pasch. Pasch patented the use of red phosphorus in the striking surface. He found that this could ignite heads that did not need to contain white phosphorus. Johan Edvard and his younger brother Carl Frans Lundström (1823–1917) started a large-scale match industry in Jönköping, Sweden around 1847, but the improved safety match was not introduced until around 1850–55.
The Lundström brothers had obtained a sample of red phosphorus matches from Arthur Albright at The Great Exhibition, held at The Crystal Palace in 1851, but had misplaced it and therefore they did not try the matches until just before the Paris Exhibition of 1855 when they found that the matches were still usable. In 1858 their company produced around 12 million matchboxes.
The safety of true “safety matches” is derived from the separation of the reactive ingredients between a match head on the end of a paraffin-impregnated splint and the special striking surface (in addition to the safety aspect of replacing the white phosphorus with red phosphorus). The idea for separating the chemicals had been introduced in 1859 in the form of two-headed matches known in France as Allumettes Androgynes. These were sticks with one end made of potassium chlorate and the other of red phosphorus. They had to be broken and the heads rubbed together.
There was however a risk of the heads rubbing each other accidentally in their box. Such dangers were removed when the striking surface was moved to the outside of the box. The development of a specialized matchbook with both matches and a striking surface occurred in the 1890s with the American Joshua Pusey, who sold his patent to the Diamond Match Company.
The striking surface on modern matchboxes is typically composed of 25% powdered glass or other abrasive material, 50% red phosphorus, 5% neutralizer, 4% carbon black, and 16% binder; and the match head is typically composed of 45–55% potassium chlorate, with a little sulfur and starch, a neutralizer (ZnO or CaCO3), 20–40% of siliceous filler, diatomite, and glue.
Some heads contain antimony (III) sulfideto make them burn more vigorously. Safety matches ignite due to the extreme reactivity of phosphorus with the potassium chlorate in the match head. When the match is struck the phosphorus and chlorate mix in a small amount forming something akin to the explosive Armstrong’s mixture which ignites due to the friction.
The Swedes long held a virtual worldwide monopoly on safety matches, with the industry mainly situated in Jönköping, by 1903 called Jönköpings & Vulcans Tändsticksfabriks AB. In France, they sold the rights to their safety match patent to Coigent Père & Fils of Lyon, but Coigent contested the payment in the French courts, on the basis that the invention was known in Vienna before the Lundström brothers patented it.
The British match manufacturer Bryant and May visited Jönköping in 1858 to try to obtain a supply of safety matches, but it was unsuccessful. In 1862 it established its own factory and bought the rights for the British safety match patent from the Lundström brothers.