What Makes a Match Light?


Matches light as the result of a chemical reaction: The friction from striking a match produces a flammable compound, which then ignites in the air. The two chemicals needed to produce the reaction are present on the match head and the striker (for safety matches) or just on the match head (for strike-anywhere matches).


  • The earliest method of starting a fire was rubbing two sticks together to produce heat and sparks. Later, humans discovered flint, which sparks when struck, making fire-starting much easier. In 1669, an alchemist accidentally discovered phosphorus; in 1680, the English chemist Robert Boyle discovered that sulfur would ignite when struck against phosphorus.


  • In 1827, John Walker created yard-long wooden sticks with a phosphorus/sulfur head. Since the matches contained both compounds, they ignited when struck against any rough surface---the precursor to the modern strike-anywhere match. A number of inventors created fire-starting devices using other chemicals, but many were dangerous, producing hazardous stray sparks or (in the case of white phosphorus) causing health problems such as skeletal deformities.


  • Matches became much safer with the discovery of red phosphorus in 1845, replacing poisonous white phosphorus. In addition, separating the two compounds into a red match head and black striking surface made it less likely that matches would accidentally ignite. In the late 1890s, the Diamond Match Company purchased the rights to the matchbook with a striker on the outside (invented by Joshua Pusey) and called its product "safety matches."


  • A safety match-head contains sulfur, glass powder and an oxidizing agent, which provides oxygen to help a flame ignite; the striker contains red phosphorus, glass powder and sand. The friction of a match against the striker produces heat, turning a small amount of the red phosphorus into white phosphorus and causing the oxidizing agent to react and produce oxygen gas. The white phosphorus then ignites, setting the sulfur match-head on fire.


  • A strike-anywhere match works the same way as a safety match, except that strike-anywhere version contains both components necessary for the chemical reaction. The white tip on a strike-anywhere match-head contains phosphorus and glass powder. When you strike this type of match against any hard surface, the chemicals react to produce a flame.


  • Photo Credit match image by Rich Johnson from Fotolia.com
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