Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Walker, John (1781?-1859)

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WALKER, JOHN (1781?–1859), inventor of friction matches, was born at Stockton-on-Tees in 1780 or 1781. He was articled to Watson Alcock, the principal surgeon of the town, and served him as assistant-surgeon. He had, however, an insurmountable aversion from surgical operations, and in consequence turned his attention to chemistry. After studying at Durham and York, he set up a small business as chemist and druggist at 59 High Street, Stockton, about 1818. He was a tolerable chemist, and was especially interested in searching for a means of obtaining fire easily. Several chemical mixtures were known which would ignite by a sudden explosion, but it had not been found possible to transmit the flame to a slow-burning substance like wood. While Walker was preparing a lighting mixture on one occasion, a match which had been dipped in it took fire by an accidental friction upon the hearth. He at once appreciated the practical value of the discovery, and commenced making friction matches. They consisted of wooden splints or sticks of cardboard coated with sulphur and tipped with a mixture of sulphide of antimony, chlorate of potash, and gum, the sulphur serving to communicate the flame to the wood. The price of a box containing fifty was one shilling. With each box was supplied a piece of sandpaper, folded double, through which the match had to be drawn to ignite it. Two and a half years after Walker's invention was made public Isaac Holden arrived, independently, at the same idea of coating wooden splinters with sulphur. The exact date of his discovery, according to his own statement, was October 1829. Previously to this date Walker's sales-book contains an account of no fewer than two hundred and fifty sales of friction matches, the first entry bearing the date 7 April 1827. He refused to patent his invention, considering it too trivial. Notwithstanding, he made a sufficient fortune from it to enable him to retire from business. He died at Stockton on 1 May 1859.

[Gent. Mag. 1859, i. 655; Encyclopædia Brit. 9th ed. xv. 625; Heavisides's Annals of Stockton, 1865, p. 105; Andrews's Bygone England, 1892, pp. 212–15; Northern Echo, 6 May 1871; Daily Chronicle, 19 Aug. 1897; Notes and Queries, 4th ser. ix. 201.]

E. I. C.