Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/September 1895/Only a Match

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IF one should count the matches that are used daily he would arrive at an immense sum — in the milliards, at least. To supply the immense demand for the little sticks which so quickly go out in fire and flame, a great number of factories on either side of the ocean are busy with steam and noisy machines; while we have become so indifferent that we see nothing special in the fire-bearing splinters, and are vexed when one of them fails, or the hissing head breaks off, or the flame goes out, leaving the wood to glimmer.

We shall really have to go among savages to learn to admire the match. Take the white traveler in darkest Africa, in the midst of naked negroes, who see a civilized man for the first time. He carelessly brings out his matchbox to light his cigar. A slight movement of the hand, and the blaze flickers; the crowd of black spectators, frightened, fall back and run away, crying, "Witch! witch!" These negroes are really not savages. They possess fire, by which they warm themselves, and with the help of which they work metals, produce iron and forge it; but they still obtain fire in the primitive way, either by striking steel against flint or in the tedious method of a ruder antiquity by rubbing pieces of dry wood together, and not always with success. But the white man produces his flame as if by magic in an instant.

In the beginning of this century chemists discovered a number of substances which took fire more easily than dry wood or punk, and, as modern naturalists are mostly practical men, the thought occurred to them to make these substances available for the quicker production of fire. They found, for example, that chlorate of potash, now much used as a gargle in throat diseases, was decomposed and set fire to combustible substances as soon as it came in contact with concentrated sulphuric acid. The first practicable match was based upon this observation; a stick was covered at the end with a coating of sulphur, and over this was spread a mass of gum and chlorate of potash. When the head of the match was dipped in concentrated sulphuric acid, the chlorate of potash detonated and set fire to the inflammable sulphur, which imparted its flame to the wood. These were the dip matches, which were introduced in 1812, and were very popular. The sulphuric acid was kept in vials, from the stoppers of which asbestus threads hung down in the inside, and were thereby wet with the acid. If one wanted fire, he drew out the asbestus thread and pressed the head of the match upon it when the fire appeared. Another property of chlorate of potash was discovered shortly afterward. Mixed with various substances—sulphuret of antimony, for example—a combination was produced which exploded, with issue of flame, on being rubbed. This mixture was first applied to matches by Johann Friedrich Kammerer in 1832. Having sulphured the end of the stick, he prepared an adhesive mixture of gum arabic, chlorate of potash, and sulphuret of antimony, dipped the stick in it, and let the whole dry. This new match was lighted by rubbing it, under pressure of the fingers, in a folded piece of sandpaper.

The use of phosphorus was the next improvement. That substance inflames readily when warmed to 50° C, or 122° F.—a temperature easily obtained by lightly scratching the match on a rough surface. Experiments had been made with this substance at the beginning of the century; but the first phosphorus matches were crude and unsafe. Pure phosphorus was kept under water in bottles, whence small bits of it were taken out and lighted by rubbing on leather. Kammerer, not being fully satisfied with his first composition, tried a new one containing phosphorus as well as chlorate of potash. After this there were no more failures of the matches to light, for the phosphorus took fire under the slightest friction and decomposed the chlorate of potash, which gave out the oxygen required to inflame the sulphur, and made a lively combustion possible. The idea found favor, and the first large factory of phosphorus matches was erected in Vienna by Stephan Römer and J. Preschel. This match, too, had its defects. The mixture of phosphorus and chlorate of potash exploded with such force as to be available for filling bombs. Some serious accidents occurred in the shops, and the transportation of the material was forbidden in several countries. The new matches were wild comrades that needed taming. At last the Vienna makers succeeded in replacing the chlorate of potash by other substances—such as minium, peroxide of lead, and manganese oxide—which gave out oxygen more slowly.

Objections were still brought against these matches. The burning sulphur emitted an offensive odor: to obviate this, paraffin was introduced in the place of sulphur as the substance in which the sticks should be dipped before finishing their heads. A more serious objection was founded on the poisonous nature of the vapor of phosphorus, by reason of which the use of even only a few matches at a time was attended with peril, and the workmen in the factories became subject to dangerous diseases. Yet the manufacturers would not give up phosphorus, and the public, having become accustomed to the new matches, demanded them, so that it was not feasible to prohibit the making of them, and the attention of the Government was rather directed to devising the best provisions practicable for the safety of the workmen.

A curious coincidence occurred in 1845, when the attention of Lorinser in Vienna was first directed to phosphorus poisoning, and Römer, of the same city, discovered the amorphous or red form of phosphorus and the method of converting white phosphorus into it. This form of the element, taking fire at 250° C., is not poisonous. Römer and Preschel were engaged in experiments to find whether the new form of phosphorus might not be used in matches instead of white phosphorus. They found that a mixture of chlorate of potash, sulphuret of antimony, and amorphous phosphorus would take fire readily through friction on a rough body, but the same result followed which Kammerer had experienced with his first mixture. The mass exploded with a violence that sent burning bits of the stuff hissing all over the room. About 1850 the German chemist Böttger introduced a novelty which marked the beginning of a new era in the match manufacture. He made the substance of the head of the match of a mixture of chlorate of potash and sulphuret of antimony, using gum to bind them, and prepared a special friction surface consisting of a coating that contained amorphous phosphorus. When the head of the match was drawn over this substance bits of the amorphous phosphorus were kindled here and there by the friction, which ignited parts of the match-head, producing the explosion of the whole mixture.

The "Swedish safety matches" were made in many German shops from Böttger's recipes about 1850, but they could not compete with the phosphorus matches. People had become accustomed to the last; they were easily lighted, and if the sandpaper was lost, fire could be got by drawing them on the wall or the trousers; while with the new matches one had always to carry his rough card phosphorized with amorphous phosphorus, without which his match was useless. The great value of the German discovery, however, became known abroad about 1860, when the Swedish engineer Lundstrom founded the famous factory in Jönköping. The material of the match-head and the friction surface remained as before, but the Swedes devised a practicable method of boxing, putting the matches in the little convenient slide-boxes, and the chief hindrance to the spread of the invention was removed. The "Swedish matches," as they are now generally called, do not light of themselves so easily as the phosphorus matches, and are therefore safer; and they are, further, unpoisonous. It is therefore no wonder that the "Swedes" have enjoyed a triumphal march through the world, have found a home in Europe and America, and have even made their way into dark Africa. During its most prosperous period, the Jönköping factory produced annually four million marks' worth of matches. Rivals soon rose to it in different parts of the world, and several shops in Germany are sending out excellent Böttger safety matches in Swedish dress. They have so far naturalized themselves as to make the condition of the phosphorus match trade a hard one, and in some states the prohibition of the use of the poisonous white phosphorus in matches has been contemplated.

Still the match has not yet reached its highest stage of perfection. A third period of development looms before it. The safety matches can still be lighted only on the prepared surface of the box. An unpoisonous match which will light as readily as a phosphorus match is not yet found.

Not less important than the chemical constitution is the mechanical preparation of the little fire-bearers. The times have passed when a man could make matches profitably with a simple apparatus at home or in a little shop. Machines have gained the victory over hand labor in this field, and they only are competent to turn out the thousands of thousands of sticks that are burned yearly. The favorite wood for matches is the poplar; but as this can not supply all the demand, pine and fir woods are also used. In the early days of the manufacture, the work of cutting the blocks and forming the sticks was performed by hand; but now the machines are so perfected that a single one can turn out as many as 6,000,000 sticks in a day of ten hours.

The ordinary cut stick is not adapted to matches the heads of which contain no sulphur, and the Swedish matches are prepared by a new method, in which the sticks are obtained by a peeling process. The logs are barked and sawed into blocks about eighteen inches long. These are steamed, then drawn out of the tubs and placed while still hot into the peeling machine, where they are turned upon a pivot and cut by a sharp knife into a continuous band of the right thickness, which is also cut into strips as broad as the length of a match. One of these machines, of only two horse power, operated by a man, can in one working day turn out 4,000 square metres of shavings, from which 15,000,000 matches may be made. The narrow ribbons of wood next go into a machine the operation of which is something like that of a common straw chopper. By a simple mechanism from fifty to seventy thicknesses of the ribbons are pushed slowly forward under a sharp knife, which cuts them into sticks of the desired thickness. These fall upon an endless belt and are carried by it into the drying room. There are machines which, worked by a man and a boy, will turn out 28,000,000 sticks a day. The boxes for the Swedish matches are likewise made by the aid of machines, a description of which involves too many technicalities to be given here; so we only mention a few facts concerning their performance.

The first machine prepares daily 3,000 square metres of board, out of which 200,000 boxes can be made. The second machine cuts up the board into strips affording material for between 300,000 and 400,000 boxes. Another machine sticks these boxes together. The outside box is held together with blue paper. This paper is introduced in endless strips about fifty-six centimetres broad from a roller adjusted sidewise to it; and the cutting, turning, and parting are all done automatically. With one girl to serve it the machine completes daily 36,000 outer boxes. Another machine makes the drawers of the boxes, turning out 25,000 of them in a ten hours' day. Next the boxes are smeared on the narrow sides with the preparation on which the matches are rubbed. A machine does this for between 120,000 and 150,000 boxes a day, more neatly and correctly than can be done by a man's hand. Finally, there is the machine for pasting on the name of the firm, which tickets from 40,000 to 50,000 boxes a day, using less paste in the operation than a workman would. If we reflect now that there are thousands of these machines in different parts of the world, we may be able to comprehend the importance which the match industry has reached in our time.

We return to our sticks, which we left in the drying room, and which are yet to be furnished with the inflammable heads. Before this is done, the tips of the sticks are smeared with some substance that will take fire readily sulphur, paraffin, or stearin. For this purpose they are dipped in the matter while it is warm. It was discovered at the beginning of the manufacture that no progress could be made if single matches were to be dipped by hand, and frames were devised for the purpose; they were made of thin boards, in which rows of parallel grooves were cut. The sticks were laid in these grooves, and they being short, the matches projected from them. The boards, having been filled up, are tightly packed in larger frames, and the whole, containing hundreds of thousands of matches, is immersed in the bath. The sticks were formerly deposited in the grooves by girls, who became so dexterous in the business that they could handle as many as 200,000 of the splinters in a working day. More recently machines have been substituted for this tedious labor, with which 1,500,000 matches can be handled in a day. But no one has succeeded in inventing a machine for coating the heads with the inflammable matter. That has still to be done by hand.

When the heads are fixed, the matches are returned to the drying room, where they remain till they have parted with all their moisture; then they are taken out of the frames, laid together, and packed in boxes. This part of the work, which is attended with danger of fire, was likewise till only a short time ago performed by hand; but machines have now been devised which take the matches from the opened frames and drop them all in order into large cases, from which they are then repacked in small boxes. One of these machines of the latest construction is capable of extracting from the frames from two to three millions of the sticks a day, with far less danger of fire than when the work is done by men.

Still more recently the Swedish Lundgren, who is famous for his box-making machines, has devised another machine, which fills the boxes and delivers them closed. Nothing more needs to be done than to fill the receiver of the machine with matches and boxes, and to draw from it 25,000 well-filled boxes in a working day.

Thus we see that the little match, which passes away so quickly, has a famous history, and is really one of the most wonderful achievements of the human race. An immense amount of most sagacious ingenuity is concealed in it. The negro is right when, seeing light and fire spurt out as he looks at the curious thing, he cries out that "it is an enchantment," for the little piece of wood certainly surpasses the most marvelous art of the old magicians. — Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from Die Gartenlaube.

The Challenger Report, recording the work of the greatest scientific voyage ever undertaken, is now completed, in fifty large volumes containing 29,500 pages of letterpress, with 3,000 plates and maps, and innumerable blocks in the text. The Challenger Expedition left England in December, 1872, charged with the scientific exploration of the physical, chemical, geological, and biological conditions of the great ocean basins, with Captain George S. Nares as naval commander, and Prof. Wyville Thomson and five other gentlemen as the scientific corps. A very complete study was made of the Atlantic Ocean, which was crossed and recrossed in many different directions. From Cape Town the Challenger proceeded to Australia by a southerly course, and was the first steam vessel to cross the Antarctic Circle. She then passed through the western Pacific and its island groups to Hong Kong and Japan, crossed to the middle of the Pacific in 40° north and sailed south to 40° south; then visited Juan Fernandez and Valparaiso; passed through the Strait of Magellan; and returned along the central line of the Atlantic to England in May, 1876. More than five hundred deep-sea soundings were made, with deep-sea dredge and trawl. Besides the vast collection of marine animals, specimens of water from different depths, and of the deposit in the sea-bed were obtained. Tow-nettings for the collection of surface-living organisms were taken continually, magnetic observations whenever it was possible, and meteorological and surface temperatures every two hours. The results of the exploration have furnished food for several years' study by many naturalists besides those concerned in the preparation of the report.