Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/August 1877/Matches

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AN article in The Popular Science Monthly of last November gave an interesting account of the early history of fire, showing how that important element was obtained in primitive times. We will now consider the development of the modern art of extemporizing fire. In a match-making age those crude and ancient processes are regarded with curiosity, but that they ever possessed any practical value is scarcely realized; while the use of our prompt and cheap devices for producing combustion has grown to be such a matter of course that a thought is hardly given to the time when they did not exist. During the whole of the last century, however, and in the early part of the present century, the invention of a safe and trustworthy agent for furnishing fire was regarded as one of the great wants of the age; and fifty years ago a tinder-box was as much an indispensable article of household economy as is the well-filled match-safe to-day. The sulphur-match now in use is not so old as our railroads, and but a few years ago there occurred frequent examples of burns caused by the explosion of the match and the projection of its burning pieces.

Among the more civilized nations, the tinder-box, with the flint and steel, became known in the fourteenth century, and continued to be used, notwithstanding the other methods, down to the invention of the lucifer-match. The tinder was formed by the partial combustion of a linen or cotton rag, and, being ignited by striking a spark upon it from the flint and steel, communicated its fire in turn to the match.

When phosphorus was first discovered, two hundred years ago, it was utilized in London by rubbing it between two pieces of brown paper. A fire was produced in this way, which lighted a splint tipped with sulphur. Another early method was to put a piece of phosphorus in a vial and stir it with a hot iron wire, after which the vial was corked tightly for use. As the phosphorus was partially burned in the confined portion of the air, the interior of the vial became covered with oxide of phosphorus. When a light was desired, a sulphur tipped splint was dipped into the bottle, a portion of the phosphorus adhered to it, and, being brought into the air, the chemical action between the two substances caused a flame which lighted the splint.

When chlorate of potash is mixed with loaf-sugar, a drop of sulphuric acid let fall on the compound will produce a brilliant flame. This principle involved the next stage in the development of the match. The end of the splint was tipped with the mixture, colored with vermilion, and ignited in a little bottle containing asbestus and sulphuric acid. The various ingredients were then put into a handsome metal case, and the patent was ready to take its place among the wealthy; for, at first, a single case of a hundred sold for four dollars and seventy-five cents. There were certain drawbacks to the practical use of this invention, as the acid would become weak by absorbing moisture from the air, and the match, instead of producing the brilliant flame expected, merely smouldered and spurted the acid about, to the detriment of good clothes and a peaceful disposition. As a stroke of economy, such a wetted match was occasionally put back among the rest for future use; but, coming in contact with one more energetic, it ignited the latter, and thus the whole collection was lighted at once and shot out in all directions. From this dip-splint, oxymuriate match, or instantaneous light-box, as it was variously termed, lucifers trace their lineal descent.

John Walker, an Englishman, is generally supposed to have invented lucifer-matches in 1829. The first real friction-match was made in England in 1832, and was a compound of chlorate of potash and sulphuret of antimony. It was ignited by strong compression between two pieces of sand-paper, and, as a natural consequence, the heads frequently flew off in all directions. A year or two later, phosphorus was substituted for the antimony; the matches were called "congreves," and the composition continued to be improved by using other constituents for part of the chlorate of potash.

The ease with which phosphorus is ignited by friction has caused it to be employed universally in the manufacture of matches. The particular proportions and the exact ingredients which make up the head of the match are jealously guarded by the manufacturers, each one claiming some advantage over the others. From one-twelfth to one-tenth is laid down as the best proportion of phosphorus to be employed. Glue, gum, or similar substances, are used for causing the composition to adhere to the splint. The use of glue is objectionable, as it carbonizes and prevents combustion. In preparing the compound, the mucilaginous substance is dissolved in water till it assumes the consistency of thin sirup. After it is heated, the phosphorus is added in small pieces, and thoroughly incorporated by rubbing till cold. If it were left in this condition, however, the mass, upon becoming cold, would prevent the admission of air and hinder combustion. Some additional substance is necessary to supply the oxygen to it, such as red-lead, saltpetre, or chlorate of potash. Coloring-matter is also usually put into the solution: vermilion, if the tips are to be red; Prussian blue, if they are to be blue, etc. In making sulphur-matches, the ends of the splints are first dipped into melted sulphur, and afterward touched to the surface of the phosphorus-paste. In lighting such a match, the process is as follows: the coating of the head is broken by friction, the phosphorus is kindled, and the heat of its combustion decomposes the salts; these, in their decomposition, evolve oxygen, which provides the fuel, increases the heat, and causes the ignition of the sulphur, which in turn inflames the wood. The temperature required for kindling matches varies from 150° to 160° Fahr. The sulphur is what causes the peculiar brimstone-odor. Instead of sulphur, stearin, stearic acid, or paraffin, is used in the better kinds of matches. They burn more readily than the sulphur-matches, as the fatty matter and wood take fire together, while in the others the sulphur must first be consumed before the wood is ignited. The matches soaked in fatty matter also burn with a clearer and brighter light, and are free from the disagreeable odor due to the sulphur. A coating of varnish is sometimes employed to protect the head from moisture.

Before a box of matches can be sold, it has passed through about forty different processes, twenty for the matches and as many for the box. The wood used for the splints is commonly white-pine, free from knots. Other woods are also occasionally employed, as beech, birch, willow, poplar, and cedar. Much of the wood for this purpose is brought from Canada, and the match-manufacture is assuming such large proportions that it is making serious inroads into the supply of clear white-pine timber needed for other purposes. Formerly, the splints were cut by hand, and the composition was applied by the same means. Separate factories are now commonly employed for making the splints, and the entire labor is performed by machinery. As the manufacturers do not allow visitors in their buildings, it is impossible to describe exactly the machinery or the methods employed. By one process, the pine-wood is reduced to two-inch planks, which are cut into blocks the length of the ordinary match. These are put into a small machine, which at each stroke cuts off twelve splints, and at the following stroke delivers them upon an endless chain, which carries them to a sulphur-bath, where a wheel, revolving in the sulphur, coats their ends as they pass; farther on, a similar wheel applies the phosphorus. In this condition the matches are brought back across the room, delivered in trays near the cutting-machine, and thence sent to the packing-room. In wax-matches, or vestas, the composition is attached to a few cotton-threads immersed in a mixture of paraffin and stearin. One or two hundred of these wicks are rolled around a cylinder and separated by a comb. They pass through a bath of melted wax and are afterward drawn through holes in a metal frame, which renders the tapers smooth, cylindrical, and of the proper size and shape. A mechanical knife cuts, at one time, all the wicks according to the determined length, from one to one and a quarter inch, after which the paste is applied to their ends with great rapidity.

In the manufacture of matches much trouble has been occasioned by the use of phosphorus, as its fumes attack the teeth of the workmen, and give rise to a disease known as caries of the jaw-bones. In some of the small and poorly-managed factories the men and children are never free from the fumes; their clothes and breath are luminous in the dark, and in the daytime white fumes may be seen escaping from them whenever they are seated by the fire. The phosphorus first attacks a decayed tooth, causing pain which constantly becomes greater. The gums are sore, the face swollen, and the teeth finally drop out. The suffering is excruciating, the patient finds little relief for months or years, and, in a severe case, there is loss of one or both jaw-bones, hindering mastication and ending in death. So alarming did this disease become in Germany at one time that it attracted the attention of the Government. No antidote has yet been discovered; but it can be prevented to a great extent by ventilation and cleanliness. We have inquired of several of the leading American manufacturers in regard to the subject, and all say that their workmen are not troubled in this manner. No examination of their teeth is enforced, the men being merely warned as to the consequences before they begin their work.

Partly as a remedy for this evil, the red or amorphous phosphorus was substituted for the ordinary variety. This possesses neither odor nor taste, is not poisonous, and can be handled with safety. The danger arising from the use of matches was magnified, because they could sometimes be seen in the dark, were liable to ignite on a warm shelf, and were poisonous to such an extent that children had been killed by using them as playthings. From red phosphorus resulted the safety match. Many attempts were made to form a paste with red phosphorus and chlorate of potash without success, and finally the paste and phosphorus were separated. The heads now consist of a pasty mass composed mainly of sulphuret of antimony and chlorate of potash. The red phosphorus, mixed with very fine sand or other substance, is glued to the box in which the matches are contained. It is impossible to light such matches by friction upon any common rough surface, though they at once burst into flame when rubbed upon the phosphorus composition on the box. They can sometimes be lighted without application to the phosphorus on the box, by drawing them several times with long sweeps over such surfaces as glass, ebony, etc. When they were first introduced into England the use of any other kind in the public buildings was forbidden by a special act of Parliament. Their manufacture has been encouraged in several European countries, and in times past their use has by some governments been enjoined by law. These matches are also called "hygienic," because they can be put into the mouth without danger.

Another kind of safety-match, which has never come into general use, contained the phosphorus at one end and the chlorate of potash at the other. The match is lighted by breaking it in halves and rubbing the two ends together.

In Switzerland, safety-matches are almost the only ones in the market, and in Sweden they are largely manufactured for exportation. A firm in New York imported the latter for many years, but the customs-duty was so high, and the demand so slight, that the business was abandoned. One of the former partners stated that, if the American people would show any desire for the matches, he could furnish them much cheaper than the matches produced in this country, as in Sweden the materials are provided at a very trifling expense. But, as he expressed it, "an American prefers to put his hand into his pocket, take out a match, and strike it on his pantaloons or shoe, to economizing by carrying them around in the box in which he buys them. And you could never get the Irish servants here to use safety-matches unless you had the priest on your side."

Factories for the production of safety-matches were established in New York, Boston, and other places, but they have all failed with the exception of one in Erie, Pennsylvania, which, with the assistance of some of the wax and parlor manufacturers, easily supplies the demand created in this country. Those made by Bryant & May, in England, are also found in the shops here. The great objection to safety matches seems to be due to the fact that they are so difficult to carry about. In France they are regarded with great disfavor by the population. No one cares to be troubled with an angular box which he must hold in his hand till he has lighted his match; and it is impossible to put the phosphorus compound on a small pocket match-safe, as the surface is not sufficiently great, and the phosphorus soon rubs off.

A gentleman who has been employed in the manufacture of safety matches expressed it as his opinion that they are the most dangerous matches made. For in the majority of cases, when a match is struck, some of the phosphorus on the box flies off, and, being highly inflammable, if it meets with any combustible substance, it always gives rise to a danger of fire. If lighted where the phosphorus can fall upon the carpet, the result is the same as though the carpet were exposed to the sparks of a fire. There is also a certain degree of temptation offered to those who manufacture these matches. This consists in putting a small quantity of phosphorus into the heads to make them ignite more easily when brought into contact with the phosphorus on the box. This fraud has actually been carried into effect in Northern Germany, and, although nothing of the kind has been discovered in this country, the fact that it may be will probably increase their unpopularity. The safety-match has certainly had time to win its way, as an old variety of it existed in Switzerland at a period when other parts of the world were still occupied with the flint and steel. It has been claimed for these matches that they are better able to resist moisture than other varieties. The reason, however, is not apparent, as the heads are composed of salts, which are affected by water in the manner of all saline substances. It may be stated as a general rule that those matches are safest which require considerable friction for ignition, and which, when lighted, furnish merely heat enough to kindle the splints. The safest, probably, are those in which a considerable part of the compound is formed of sulphur, as it requires more than usual friction to light them. They are also a quiet match, and in lighting do not scatter any part of the head about. But they kindle slowly, and the sulphurous fumes always render them objectionable. They can also be lighted so conveniently by rubbing them on the wall that a great temptation is held out to servants to disfigure the appearance of a room in this way.

About twenty years ago parlor-matches began to be manufactured and have ever since been growing in favor. No sulphur is used in them, and in their freedom from odor, their convenience and rapidity in lighting, they have a decided advantage over all others. Their noisy explosion is occasioned by chlorate of potash, and may be prevented by substituting nitrate of potash. They are said to be superior to the German match, owing, perhaps, to the fact that they are not coated with varnish. They seem to have attained their greatest popularity in the Western and Southern States, and are used pretty generally among the wealthier classes. Swift & Courtney, who have factories in four different cities, manufacture about 1,500 gross of these daily, and state that the demand for them is constantly increasing. They are nearly half again as expensive as the sulphur match, and grocers and retail jobbers are inclined to increase their price. There is, however, but a small difference between the cost of matches with sulphur and those in which stearic acid is used, as much more sulphur is required than stearic acid. They partake of the same danger that attends the employment of the safety-match, for if they are tipped too profusely the burning material will scatter to some distance. They take fire easily if any one happens to step upon them, and require to be guarded carefully where there are children. But the danger from their use is not alarming, and insurance companies make but little distinction in their rates between these and others. It is a mistaken idea that the invention of matches has caused much difference in the number of fires; and, if a certain kind of match is preferred for its convenience, it will not be abandoned because it has an extra element of danger. Fires may result from the overturning of a box by a cat or dog, or by the gnawing of the ends of matches by rats or mice; but these occurrences are exceptional, and rarely happen.

There is said to be only one factory in America where wax-matches are now produced. This has been established within the last few years, is running altogether with French machinery, and is supplying a growing demand. The makers of wax-matches do not come into competition with other manufacturers, but find their custom among those who are attracted especially by the novelty and pleasing appearance of the matches. Their higher cost prevents them from coming into general use, and the fact that there is a monopoly in their manufacture exerts some influence in regard to the price. Great care is taken in the designs for the boxes, and no pains are spared to make them ornamental and attractive. Improvements and new patents are constantly being made in them. The most recent variety has a small hole in the lid which acts as a candlestick. As soon as the match is lighted, the unburned end is inserted in the lid of the box, and an illumination is provided which lasts according to the length of the taper. The usual wax-match gives a fine light, which continues one or two minutes—that is, four or five times as long as wooden matches. This can be increased with their length, and a very respectable impromptu candle may be obtained by the contrivance referred to. Further attractions are provided by arranging the differently-colored heads according to curious and artistic devices. They can be purchased, having a composition resembling the parlor-match, or in the form of safety-matches. All wax-matches must be made so that they will take fire upon slight friction on account of the less resistance afforded by the body of the match; but they are not on this account any more dangerous than the parlor-match. Though sometimes used by smokers, they are not well suited to this purpose, as in lighting a cigar the fatty matter can be detected by the taste.

The Japanese have contributed their stock of curiosities to this department also. They have a variety of paper matches, which burn with a small, scarcely luminous flame, forming, as the combustion advances, a red-hot ball of glowing saline matter. When the match has been partly consumed, a succession of bright sparks shoots out from the head, and gradually a brilliant scintillation is formed similar to that observed in burning a steel spring in oxygen, only much more delicate, the separate sparks branching out in beautiful forms. These matches are composed of carbon, nitre, and sulphur, and there has been no difficulty in imitating them.

Many efforts have been made to construct the heads of matches without phosphorus. There is a match in Germany at the present time in which this result has been reached, but none of the cases discovered seem to be perfectly satisfactory. Dr. Jettel has made a careful examination of the subject, and has arrived at the conclusion that the ingredients prepared to take the place of phosphorus render the match more difficult to ignite, while they are not perfectly harmless, but merely less dangerous. They are more sensitive to moisture; it is more difficult for the maker to secure a satisfactory result; and hence more expensive for the buyer. The Germans in nearly all their matches use a much smaller proportion of phosphorus than is done elsewhere, but the material must yet be found which will take its place entirely.

Accidents may be occasioned by throwing half-burned matches carelessly aside, and allowing them to smoulder near combustible substances. Various chemical solutions have been compounded in which the match is to be soaked, so that, as soon as it is blown out, the fiery mass of carbon will become black. Solutions of this kind are alum, borax, Glauber salts, or Epsom salts. Matches thus prepared are, of course, rendered more expensive.

While so much has been accomplished in the way of getting a quick fire without exertion, there is still room for considerable improvement. A safety-match has yet to be invented which will contain the entire composition on its own head. A water-proof match is desired, but has never been invented. There are firms which represent that they make water-proof matches, and the scientific journals contain from time to time receipts to effect this purpose. But they are not proof to water in the sense in which that is generally understood. Most matches may be put into the mouth or dipped into water for an instant, but none of them will bear a drenching or continued exposure to a moist atmosphere. The safety-match is objectionable for several reasons, the parlor-match from its tendency to scatter about bits of the head, and the sulphur-match from its brimstone-odor.

Matches have been made in which camphor and frankincense were mixed with the paste, and the wood of the match was of cedar, so that an agreeable odor was diffused in getting a light. So the time may come when the fashionable match, in addition to its other excellent qualities, will have such a delicate fragrance that it will be a pleasure merely to light it.

In 1864 the Government required a one-cent stamp to be placed on every package of matches. In anticipation of the tax a large quantity had been manufactured, so that for the first two years the legitimate revenue was not derived. In 1865 the receipts obtained in this manner amounted to about $1,000,000, but since then they have greatly increased, so that the stamp-tax now forms a large part of the cost. In comparison with other branches of business this product of industry probably affords the largest revenue accruing under the excise. Owing to this tax several large firms either failed or retired; and at the present time the manufacturer of sulphur-matches, by the greatest care and economy, secures but a small margin on his sales. A heavy tax of this kind is liable to defeat its own object, as is exemplified by numerous facts. Thus, in 1865, matches were imported into the United States from New Brunswick, and sold in packages suitable for the retail trade without paying any tax under the internal-revenue law. When, a few years ago in England, a stamp-duty was put upon matches, the opposition was so violent that the attempt had to be abandoned.

In 1872 the French Government, desiring an additional source of revenue, determined to extract it from their matches. They therefore let to a single great company the sole right of making them for twenty years, and agreed to buy up all the old factories and furnish the company with new ones. In return the latter was to pay a fixed rent of $3,200,000 per annum. It was furthermore stipulated that the price of the matches should not be raised, but the company is already accused of treating this as a dead letter. The matches are said to be so bad that they will hardly light, and the peasants, instead of buying them, use a match of home-manufacture, made by steeping hemp in sulphur. Great trouble and expense have been incurred by the state; the company has been despotic and unable to fulfill its obligations; a proposition has been made and rejected on the part of the Government to reduce the rent one-half; and the probabilities are, that the lease will expire before the time agreed upon.

The extent to which the manufacture of matches is carried can be but faintly indicated by means of figures. The demand for them in Great Britain is, on an average, eight daily for each individual; in Belgium, nine per head; and, for Europe and North America, the entire average is six for every inhabitant. To meet this demand matches are produced by the million, and the waxed taper, before division into small pieces, is measured by the mile. It is stated that one pound of phosphorus is sufficient for 1,000,000 matches, though the proportion varies greatly. In France there are consumed for this purpose 70,000 pounds of phosphorus every year. The largest makers are in Austria, two of whom use twenty tons of phosphorus per annum, and produce nearly 45,000,000,000 matches. One firm in New York uses annually 700,000 feet of choice white-pine timber, 100,000 pounds of sulphur, and 150 tons of straw-board for their boxes. Large quantities are exported from the United States to the East and West Indies, China, South America, and other countries. At the census taken here in 1870 there were found to be 75 establishments engaged in the business, and the value of the products for that year was $3,540,000.