Spitchki – Matches

April 7th, 2015 Sections: Monuments, Soviet Union
A lighted match ... at one time a revolutionary innovation

Spitchki – A lighted match … at one time a revolutionary innovation

We take so many everyday things for granted … that, as a result, we forget what marvels they are and how they revolutionized daily life.  Some of them, of course, are major and complex innovations … like computers and the internet … but others are more basic – even so, they have had a significant impact in history and on the economy and development.

One such innovation is the spitchki – the humble match.  Although the dry sticks are thought to have been the forerunner of the match – they could only be lit by generating a spark … until, that is, the discovery of white phosphorus – by Henning Brandt, a retired soldier from Hamburg, in 1669. He was exploring Alchemy and attmpting to turn base metals to gold when he accidentally came across a white substance that generated light – which he called Phosporus, because, in Greek, that means “Light bearing”.

It was an English Chemist, John Walker, (who had also worked as an assistant surgeon), that first came up with the idea that we would today recognize as a match … and just like Bandt’s discovery, it came about by chance.  He was mixing chemicals with a wooden stick and a globule had attached itself to the end of the stick and dried.  In attempt to clean the stick he struck it on the floor … and the tip of the stick burst into flames and fire broke out.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Walker was a scientist and set his inquiring mind to work … investigating this strange phenomenon and experimenting with different parameters.  Having found an optimal formulation, (potassium chlorate, white phosphorus and glue), he sold his first match to a lawyer, Nixon, on 7th April 1827.

Apparently a box of 50 matches cost the princely sum of one shilling – 5 pence in decimal currency – which was actually quite expensive in those days!

Despite this commercial transaction, Walker was more of a scientist than an entrepreneur – he doesn’t seem to have been out to make a fortune … he didn’t for example, patent his discovery, (even though the likes of Michael Faraday urged him to do so).  It’s probably just as well, because in two years he managed to sell just 250 boxes.

It was taken up by Samuel Jones, (a businessman who had been present at his first public demonstration of his match) who set about manufacturing and marketing the new Lyutsiferchiki light sticks.

They sold well, despite the fact that they weren’t without problems … they smelt somewhat unpleasantly and the fire scattered about in a cloud of sparks – as I can testify to … as an inattentive schoolboy I discovered this particular feature of white phosphorus and almost set the school science lab on fire because I hadn’t listen to the teacher’s safety instructions.

In 1847, an Austrian chemist made a discovery which was make matches ‘safe’ – he used red, in place of white, phosphorus – which was not poisonous … and soon new improvements were being introduced as different chemicals were incorporated into the combustible bulb on the tip of the match:- sulphur, salt peroxide, magnesium and parafin … and in order to set them on fire, he created a special surface – oiled paper containing a certain amount of red phosphorus. French, German and Swedish chemists all played a role in the development of a safe and healthy match – the Swedes actually winning a Gold Medal at the International Exhibition in Paris in 1855.

It was in 1910, however, that the American company Diamond Match first received a patent for their development of “safe and healthy” matches.  This invention was deemed so important that the American president, William Taft, publicly appealed to patent owners, asking them to stop copyright infringement and in January 1911 they agreed to waive all rights to their invention.

There have been further developments with matches designed for special purposes – long and thin, short and fat, with different composition to be used in specific environments or circumstances.  There is even a patent issued for a Kyrgyzstan Match with its own special formula designed “reduce the toxicity of combustible gases due to the lack of lower oxides of phosphorus vapor and so avoid the use of red phosphorus from the process of manufacture of matches, the production of which is environmentally harmful, multistage and power consumption.”


Matches can still be dangerous – although the danger is more related to the person using them then inherent in the match itself, or its manufacture.

For example, in August 2010 in the village of Zhatay Nookat, fire broke out in a yard and consumed 200 bales of hay.  The fire brigade was called and succeeded in extinguishing the flames in 14 minutes.   The investigation into the event concluded that the conflagration was the result of a childish prank.

This particular case led to an appeal from the Ministry of Emergency Situations – responsible for the Fire Service – to the public to keep matches away from the reach of children.

That appeal, Hide matches from children would have been instantly recognizable to local citizens … it was a safety slogan which  was common in Soviet times – featuring on posters, postcards, calendars and so forth.

A Soviet Slogan - Hide matches from Children.

A Soviet Slogan – Hide matches from Children.

It is even to be seen atop a apartment building here in Bishkek – best seen on the way into the center of town coming down Prospekt Mira, on the right hand side of the road just after the bridge over the Ala Archa River and before Gorkova Street.

Although Kyrgyzstan has been independent for almost a quarter of a century, slogans like this can still be seen adorning some of the older buildings in the city – an example of social advertising rather than product placement.

For the record: 2nd March is International Match Day … but, why this date was chosen, I have no idea.



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