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Where did I get this true story? From Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things by Charles Panati (1987, Harper and Row, Publishers).

A section of the article Match Patent Ended for Humanity's Sake has been scanned in for your reference. This story appeared in the January 29, 1911 issue of the New York Times (page 1, column 1).






Matchmaker, Matchmaker, make me a match...

Yeah, we all know the story... 

Mr. Homo erectus (can you imagine having that name today?) rubbed those two sticks together and got .... FIRE! 

Well, sticks are not the easiest way to start a fire. These guys never let their fires go out, as it was virtually impossible to start them again. 

They needed a solution. 

What to do? What to do? 

They needed matches. Unfortunately, they had to wait 1.5 million years for its invention. I guess they were stuck with those stupid sticks. 

It almost all changed in 1669. An alchemist was on the verge (sure!) of changing base metals into gold, but instead got some new stuff that he called phosphorous. He had no use for it. Garbage. 

In 1680, an English physicist named Robert Boyle (of Boyle's Law fame) devised a small piece of paper coated with phosphorous. He had a separate splinter of wood with sulfur on it. When he drew the wood through the paper, it burst into flames. FIRE! However, phosphorous was rare in those days, so it soon disappeared before anyone knew of them. 

In 1826, a guy named John Walker made a discovery. He was stirring a mixture of chemicals with a stick. When he removed the stick, he noticed that it had a dried blob at the end. To get it off, he scraped it on the floor. Guess what he got - FIRE!

There was no phosphorous in the match, though. It was antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate, gum, and starch. Like all dummies, he didn't bother to patent his invention. He showed it as a novelty to everyone. 

Some guy named Samuel Jones saw his demonstration, and realized its market value. He named the matches Lucifers. He sold tons. In fact, smoking increased dramatically as a result of the matches. 

Problem - the matches had a very strong odor and ignited with a burst of fireworks. There was a warning on the matches that they were dangerous to your health (yet, the cigarettes were not!). 

What to do? What to do? 

In 1830, a French chemist named Charles Sauria reformulated the match with white phosphorous to eliminate the odor. 

No smell, but... 

This lead to a nearly epidemic disease known as "phossy jaw", as the phosphorous was deadly. 

Workers in the match factories had poisoned bones. Children sucked on the matches, which caused infant skeletal deformities, and one pack of matches had enough phosphorous on it to kill a person (used in many a suicide and murder). 

By 1910, there was a worldwide push to ban the use of matches made from white phosphorous. In the United States, the Diamond Match Company held the patent for the first nonpoisonous match. They used a harmless chemical called sesquisulfide of phophorous. So important was this invention, that United States President William H. Taft publicly asked the patent holders to give up their patent. Diamond Match did the humanitarian thing and surrendered the rights to their patent on January 28, 1911. Soon after, Congress passed a law that placed a prohibitively high tax on matches made with the poisonous white phosphorous and their production soon came to an end. 

Let's jump back in time (just a bit) to 1892, where we find a guy named Joshua Pusey who invented something called the matchbook. 

Never heard of it. 

Have you? 

He must have been a genius, as he placed the striking surface on the inside. As a result all 50 matches ignited at the same time. Oops! 

His patent was purchased by Diamond Match and they moved the striking surface to the outside, producing the "safety match". 

Today, 500 billion matches are used each year, about 200 billion from matchbooks. That's one big FIRE! 

Useless?  Useful?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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