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Who invented matches?


The quest for ways to ignite a fire began about 1.5 million years ago, when the caveman discovered that he could start a fire by rubbing two sticks together, and ended with the successful invention of the non-toxic matches we use today.

Today, approximately 500 billion matches are used each year and about 200 billion of these come from matchbooks.

In 1669, an alchemist, one who mistakenly believes that he can change base metals into gold, mixed up a batch of something which was, surprisingly, not gold, but a substance he named phosphorous. Since his recipe did not produce the gold he desired, he tossed it onto the heap of history.

Next was Robert Boyle, an English physicist, after whom Boyle's Law was named. He cleverly coated a piece of paper with phosphorous and, armed with a splinter of sulfur-coated wood, bravely bulled the wood through the paper, which burst into flames.

Much later, in 1826, John Walker stumbled upon a chemical concoction that produced fire. After stirring together a mixture of chemicals, which did not contain phosphorous, John removed the stick he used, only to find a dried lump at its end. When he scraped the stick against the floor to rid it of the lump, the stick ignited. His mixture of antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate, gum, and starch could produce fire. In his rush to demonstrate his discovery to others, John bypassed the patent office.

In no time, a person at one of John's demonstrations, Samuel Jones, spotted an overlooked, golden opportunity, and patented the invention under his name. Mr. Jones produced matches he named Lucifers, which produced phenomenal sales. The widespread availability of the matches actually led to a significant increase in smoking.

The dark side to Lucifers was their ungodly odor, and the fireworks display they gave when ignited. In fact, Lucifers carried a warning label stating that they, not the cigarettes they lit, were dangerous to one's health!

In the 1830s, Charles Sauria, a French chemist, decided to improve upon the existing formula by adding white phosphorous to do away with the stench of the matches. What Mr. Sauria did not know, was that white phosphorous was lethal to those who came into contact with it.

Unknowingly, he created a deadly monster by adding the white phosphorous. The phosphorous was responsible for a nearly epidemic disease known as "phossy jaw," match factory workers developed poisoned bones, and children who sucked on the matches developed infant skeletal deformities. Even the amount of white phosphorous contained in one pack of matches could kill a person, and actually did, through numerous suicides and murders.

Finally, by 1910, the general public's awareness of the dangers of the white phosphorous in these matches led to a worldwide campaign to ban them. Thankfully, Diamond Match Company obtained an U.S. patent for the first nonpoisonous match, which used the harmless chemical sesquisulfide of phosphorous in place of the deadly white phosphorous.

So critical was Diamond Match Company's discovery to public health, that U.S. President Taft made a public plea to the Company voluntarily to surrender their patent rights to the invention. Despite the enormous moneymaking potential of the patent, Diamond Match Company granted President Taft's request on January 28, 1911. Congress followed suit by passing a law that raised the tax on white phosphorous matches to a level so high that their production soon ceased.

Discussion of the match would be incomplete without mention of the matchbook. John Pusey, in 1892, invented something he named the matchbook. He had the right idea, but had it backwards, as he placed the striking surface for the match on the inside of the book of 50 matches, so when one match was struck, the remaining 49 also ignited!

Once again, Diamond Match Company intervened and saved the day, by purchasing the patent to the matchbook, by moving the striking surface to the outside of the cover where it belonged, and by marketing the revamped match as the "safety match."


Bow drill method

The most well known "primitive" firelighter is the bow and drill. Demonstrated and sometimes mastered by the Boy Scouts it is tricky to use and requires much effort and practice for it to be consistently effective. If you want to try it you will need some preparation and plenty of practice. Here are the components you will require:

  • A Socket: a piece of hardwood or rock with a depression in it, either natural or carved to hold the drill and apply downward pressure.
  • A Drill: seasoned hardwood, straight and about 8" in length, the top should be rounded to reduce friction, the bottom blunted to maximize its drilling impact.
  • A Hearth: made of the same wood as the drill, about 12" long, 2 inches in width and at about 1" in thickness. Carve a shallow depression about 1" from the edge of the hearth, then drill it manually until the depression is black, rounded and fits the drill piece. Carve a wedge shaped notch from the edge of the board to the center of this depression.
  • A Bow: must be light yet strong, of any resilient wood, the rope can be of any kind although nylon is preferred for friction. Adjust the tension of the string until it becomes tight by slowly twisting.


  • Kneel with your foot on the end of the hearth; be sure your knee does not interfere with the stoking motion of the bow.
  • Brace the hand you hold the socket in against the side of your shin.
  • Drill smoothly, maintaining even pressure until smoke begins to rise from the hearth, as smoke begins, increase pressure and speed.
  • Smoke should increase; the notch will begin to fill with fine, dark powder. Once the notch is almost full of powder, stop drilling.
  • Carefully transfer this powder to a thick leaf or piece of bark, fan gently with your hand until it begins to glow, transfer this "coal" to your tinder, continue to fan, but harder, blow onto the tinder pile.
  • Best starting tinder is small clumps of dry grass, a bird's nest, dried cattails, dryer lint or other fluffy light thin dry material.

  • BOW DRILL EXTRAS: When making the spindle for your bow drill fire making kit, follow this rule of thumb. Keep the spindle the same diameter or smaller than your thumb. Fire starting will then be a little easier and a little faster. Also, fire starting is a lot easier when the grain of your fireboard runs vertical.

With luck and practice it will catch!!

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