Which Came First: the Match or the Lighter?

Which came first, the match or the lighter?

We may not know whether the chicken or the egg came first, and we might not even know why some stars appear to be older than the universe itself. There is one thing that is quite certain, however, even if it is counter-intuitive: the cigarette lighter is older than the match.

It was the German chemist Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner who invented the first cigarette lighter. Using a hydrogen/platinum reaction to generate heat, his invention was commonly known as “Dobereiner’s Lamp.” It was not a commercial success, but it did earn him his place as the father of the lighter. Dobereiner’s invention was introduced to the public in 1823. It would be another eighty years until Carl Auer Von Welsback patented the lighter that generates a spark by scratching flint.

Three years after Döbereiner’s creation of the lighter, an English chemist introduced the world to another convenient way to start fires: the friction match. John Walker’s 1826 invention generated flame by rubbing the stick against a rough surface. Like Döbereiner’s experience with his invention, Walker’s match was not very reliable or successful. In 1831, however, Frenchman Charles Sauria improved upon the idea, substituting white phosphorus at the tip of the match. These were much easier to light. In fact, they were a bit too easy to light. Users frequently found that the mere act of carrying them in the pocket would be sufficient to trigger ignition. As if that weren’t enough, the workers in the match factories were prone to a condition known as Phossy Jaw. White phosphorus vapor caused their jaw bones to become brittle and degenerate. Despite these drawbacks, white phosphorus continued to be used well into the twentieth century, when the Bern Convention prohibited the further use.

It should be noted that there was a match in existence prior to Walker’s invention. In 1805, Frenchman Jean Chancel created a match that ignited by contact with sulphuric acid. It was not self-contained and was not widely available, so it is not considered a forerunner to the friction match.

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