How matches are made by the million

If you strike a safety match anywhere but on the side of the box, it will not light. If you hit its head with a hammer, nothing happens. But a ‘strike-anywhere’ match will ignite if it is struck against any rough surface. Even the friction of a mouse gnawing the head can set it alight. Hit it with a hammer, and it will explode.

Safety matches work by a reaction that takes place between chemicals on the match and a chemical in the striking surface on the box. The reaction is triggered by the striking action, which generates heat by friction. If the head and the striking surface are not in contact, the match cannot light.

The forerunner of the modern match was produced by an English pharmacist, John Walker, in 1827. Walker’s matches were of the strike-anywhere variety, but they were not very reliable.

In 1830, Charles Suria in France hit on a much better match, using white phosphorus in the tip. Matches of this type, called lucifers (light-bearers), remained in use until the end of the 19th century.

Lucifers were reliable and kept well, but had a grave disadvantage. They could, and often did, kill. White phosphorus gives off poisonous fumes, prolonged exposure to which causes a disfiguring and eventually fatal disease called `phossy jaw’ because it causes the jawbones to rot.

Workers in matchmaking factories were affected most, and by the turn of this century, white phosphorus was banned. Its place in strike-anywhere matches was taken by phosphorus sesquisuiphide.

In the mid-1850s the Swedish manufacturer John Lundstrom pioneered the safety match by separating the phosphorus from the other combustible ingredients. He put red, non-poisonous phosphorus in the striking surface and the other ingredients in the head.

Matches today are made by automatic machines that produce up to 2 million matches an hour, boxed and ready for use. The standard wooden match starts as a log, which is cut into thin ribbons about % (2.5mm) thick.

The ribbons are chopped into matchsticks, which are soaked in a solution of ammonium phosphate. This is a fire-retardant, which ensures that the sticks do not continue to smoulder.

The sticks are then fed automatically into the holes of a long, perforated, moving steel belt. The belt dips the ends in a bath of hot paraffin wax. The wax soaks into the wood fibres, and will help transfer the flame from the head coating to the stick.

Next, the matches are dipped in the head mixture. For safety matches, the mixture contains sulphur and sometimes charcoal to create the flame and potassium chlorate to supply oxygen.

When the heads have dried, a punch knocks the sticks from the perforated belt into the inner parts of the matchboxes travelling on a moving conveyor.

The outer parts are travelling on a parallel conveyor. Every few seconds the conveyors stop, and the inners are pushed into the outers.

A strip coated with red phosphorus is applied to the sides to form the striking surface (glasspaper or a sanded resin strip is used for strike-anywhere matches).


Riots against the ‘match tax’

In 1861 the firm of Bryant & May¬† produced their first safety match at a factory at Bow, East London. By the end of its first year the factory was turning out 1,800,000 matches a week. They were so much in demand that in 1871 the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposed a ‘match tax’ of a penny a box. The proposal caused an outcry in Parliament and the Press – and thousands of match workers protested at what they saw as a threat to their livelihood. Riots resulted, and so Parliament abolished the levy.

Throughout the world matchmaking techniques became more streamlined, until today more than 800 boxes of matches can be made every minute.

Mass production

In a match factory in the 19th century, foremen and craftsmen were identified by their bowler hats (top left). Matchsticks – double the final length – were rolled in coils and dipped at both ends, then cut in half. Rows of `match girls’ finally packed them in boxes.

Moving along A steel conveyor belt takes wooden matchsticks – complete with red-dyed heads – down to meet matchboxes which move at right angles across the belt’s path. The matches are automatically punched out of the belt so that they fall in the correct numbers into the boxes.