Learn about the stories behind 10 extraordinary inventions. In this video, you'll learn about the history of matches.
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Male Speaker: Fire plays a vital role in our everyday lives, and although we take it for granted, fire wasn't always so readily available. It wasn't until 1826, when the stick an English pharmacist had been using to stir chemicals burst into flame, that the strikeable match was born. The secret ingredient of the match, phosphorus, was actually discovered in 1669 by a German alchemist named Hennig Brand. While searching for the philosopher's stone, a substance believed to transmute base metals into gold, Brand developed a mineral substance that burned with light for hours and hours. Hoping to somehow use this substance to create massive quantities of gold, Brand kept his discovery secret for years. The next major development in match history came from an English nobleman and Chemist named Robert Boyle. By rubbing phosphorous and sulfur together, Boyle was able to create fire at will. Despite its obvious benefits, Boyle's discovery would not be enjoyed by the masses for nearly one hundred and fifty years. In 1827, an English pharmacist named John Walker had just finished stirring a pot of chemicals when he noticed that the stick he'd been using to stir the pot had a dried lump on one end. Instinctively, Walker tried to scrape the substance off the end of the stick. Although not containing phosphorous, the mixture of antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate, gum, and starch was reactive enough that when he dragged it across the floor, the stick burst into flame. The strikeable match was born. Walker began to sell his Friction Lights at a local bookstore. Pasteboard match sticks three inches in length came in a round pillar-box with a small piece of folded sandpaper. Despite their harsh odor and inability to light reliably, the friction lights gained popularity and local financiers prodded Walker to monopolize on the success. 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 them." Because it wasn't patented, Walker's strikeable match could be freely and legally copied by anyone. Samuel Jones was the first. Jones' idea to sell his Lucifer matches in a small cardboard box may be his most influential invention, but his promethean match is clearly the most interesting. The match head was composed of a glass vial of sulphuric acid wrapped in a flammable, paper coating. When crushed, say by the user's teeth, the acid would ignite the paper. As a match-race was heating up in Great Britain, a French chemist named Charles Sauria mixed sulfur, antimony, potash, and phosphorus, resulting in the first strike-anywhere match. The new, phosphorous-based formula lit more reliably than and eliminated the potent odor problem of the friction lights. Unfortunately these early strike-anywhere matches were too lenient with the term "anywhere." These matches were likely to spontaneously combust when crushed, and the spark when they lit was more akin to an explosion. Furthermore, the white phosphorous used in the match heads was extremely poisonous. L. Phillip Silverman: Phosphorous is actually one of these interesting chemicals that has kind of an odd little past historically where it was isolated back in the 1600s and one of the first properties that was -- was it was named for the Greek word to glow which is phosphorous and it was discovered that one of the things the properties of this particular element that when exposed to oxygen would actually catch on fire. Male Speaker: Because sugar was used in the match tips, children were prone to sucking on them, causing infant skeletal deformities and fatalities. Match girls traditionally delivered large cases of matches by carrying them on their heads. Most were bald by the time there were 15 as a result of their contact with white phosphorous. L. Phillip Silverman: White phosphorous because of its tendency to want oxidized when it gets around the tissues that
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