What Causes a Match to Ignite?

What is your preferred aspect of going on a camping trip? For some individuals, it is the opportunity to engage in their favorite outdoor activities, such as hiking, canoeing, or fishing. Others enjoy the chance to sleep under the stars in a sleeping bag.

Many children believe that camping wouldn’t be complete without a campfire to gather around while sharing spooky stories and eating s’mores. There’s nothing quite like roasting marshmallows to keep away the ghosts and monsters.

Creating a campfire is relatively easy these days. With modern conveniences like lighters and lighter fluid, even a beginner can gather some wood and have a blazing fire in just a few minutes. However, it wasn’t always this simple.

In the past, early humans may have relied on natural occurrences. Before they learned how to create fire by rubbing sticks together, they likely waited for a tree to be set on fire by lightning so they could capture a flame and keep it burning.

Eventually, people discovered that striking flint with a rock could produce a spark, which made starting fires much easier. However, it wasn’t until 1827 that a true technological breakthrough occurred. What are we referring to? The invention of the match, of course!

While matches may seem like ancient technology in today’s world, they were groundbreaking in the early 19th century. Just imagine going from striking flint to create sparks to striking a small wooden stick that contained everything necessary to start a fire quickly and easily.

Initially, the first matches weren’t actually small. John Walker’s first matches, created in 1827, were long wooden sticks. At the end of these sticks was a head made of a mixture of phosphorus and sulfur, which would ignite when struck against any rough surface.

Over the following decades, matches were improved and perfected until they resembled the small sticks we safely use today. Modern matches create fire through a simple chemical reaction. When a match is struck, friction generates heat and a flammable compound that ignites in the air.

In today’s matches, the two most commonly used flammable compounds are sulfur and red phosphorus. In strike-anywhere matches, both of these compounds exist in the match head.

However, most people use safety matches, which have match heads containing sulfur and a striker (usually a black strip on the outside of a match pack or box) with red phosphorus. Safety matches, as the name implies, prevent accidental ignition of matches.

In addition to sulfur, a safety match head includes glass powder and an oxidizing agent, such as potassium chlorate. The glass powder helps to create the necessary friction to ignite the flammable compounds during the striking process. The oxidizing agent provides extra oxygen needed for the ignition process.

The striker on a match pack or box also contains glass powder and sand, along with red phosphorus. The glass powder and sand provide the friction necessary to generate the heat required to convert a bit of the red phosphorus into white phosphorus, which is more volatile and ignites more easily. The heat from friction also stimulates the oxidizing agent in the match head to produce oxygen gas, which ignites the white phosphorus, subsequently igniting the sulfur in the match head.

Give It a Try

We hope you’re excited to explore the following activities with a friend or family member:

  • Invite an adult friend or family member to take you to a local sporting goods store for a field trip. Visit the camping section and pay close attention to the cooking supplies area. In the past, people had to rely on matches and wood to start a fire for cooking in the wilderness. What modern technologies do you find today that make cooking while camping much easier? Are matches even necessary these days? What other tools can be used instead of matches?
  • If you were stranded in the forest and needed to start a fire for warmth and cooking, could you do it? Ask an adult friend or family member to help you pretend to be a survivor stuck in the woods. Can you gather wood and kindling? Can you start a fire without matches or a lighter? Check out the online resource “How To Start a Fire Without Matches” for some tips! Then take what you’ve learned into the wilderness and try to start your own fire without matches or a lighter. Good luck!
  • Feeling crafty? Create a match stick picture! Follow the steps provided here to make a scene using match sticks. What will you create? Once you’re done, we would love to see your creations! Share them on our Facebook page!

Sources of Wonder

  • http://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/mythbusters/about-this-show/how-matches-work/
  • http://www.ehow.com/about_6325931_match-light_.html

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *