Illustration for article titled People Used To Light Matches With Jars Of Sulfuric Acid

As neolithic humans knew, it’s not easy to light a fire. When fire was used for both heat and illumination, the delay between wanting a little light and getting one could be a problem. One of the ways to solve it was carrying around jars of sulfuric acid and using it to set things on fire.


In the very, very old days, when you wanted to light even a single candle, you were often reduced to using a tinder box. This was a box containing flint, steel, and a lot of fine, dry straw. You’d strike the flint on the steel (while trying to avoid cutting yourself, since this was a time before antibiotics) and patiently encourage the resulting sparks to kindle a small fire. It could take less than a minute, but the enthusiasm with which people embraced alternatives lets us know that it frequently took longer.

Chemists did their best to come up with faster ways to light a fire. Some included a bit of gunpowder in the tinderbox, which had to have resulted in a few disasters. Then there were early matches, which came with a lump of phosphorus, and a cork. People would rub the match on the phosophorus, then rub the match against a piece of cork or against some other rough surface.


By far, the most creative way to start a fire involved a liquid. In the early 1800s, some people lit their candles using this reaction.

That’s potassium chlorate, or as it was known then, chlorate of potash, being mixed with sulfuric acid. You can see quite a few demonstrations of this online. It works fast. Potassium chlorate is an oxidizer, providing oxygen molecules for the flame. On online demonstrations, it’s mixed with sugar. In the early 1800s, when sugar was still quite precious, it was mixed with charcoal, flour, or any other “easily combustible powder,” and used to coat a match head. Whenever someone wanted to light a match, they’d just dip the prepared match in a vial of sulfuric acid, and start a fire.

[Source: The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.]

Top Image: Emilio Küffer


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