Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 47.djvu/699

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.


IF one should count the matches that are used daily he would arrive at an immense sum—in the milliards, at least. To supply the immense demand for the little sticks which so quickly go out in fire and flame, a great number of factories on either side of the ocean are busy with steam and noisy machines; while we have become so indifferent that we see nothing special in the fire-bearing splinters, and are vexed when one of them fails, or the hissing head breaks off, or the flame goes out, leaving the wood to glimmer.

We shall really have to go among savages to learn to admire the match. Take the white traveler in darkest Africa, in the midst of naked negroes, who see a civilized man for the first time. He carelessly brings out his matchbox to light his cigar. A slight movement of the hand, and the blaze flickers; the crowd of black spectators, frightened, fall back and run away, crying, "Witch! witch!" These negroes are really not savages. They possess fire, by which they warm themselves, and with the help of which they work metals, produce iron and forge it; but they still obtain fire in the primitive way, either by striking steel against flint or in the tedious method of a ruder antiquity by rubbing pieces of dry wood together, and not always with success. But the white man produces his flame as if by magic in an instant.

In the beginning of this century chemists discovered a number of substances which took fire more easily than dry wood or punk, and, as modern naturalists are mostly practical men, the thought occurred to them to make these substances available for the quicker production of fire. They found, for example, that chlorate of potash, now much used as a gargle in throat diseases, was decomposed and set fire to combustible substances as soon as it came in contact with concentrated sulphuric acid. The first practicable match was based upon this observation; a stick was covered at the end with a coating of sulphur, and over this was spread a mass of gum and chlorate of potash. When the head of the match was dipped in concentrated sulphuric acid, the chlorate of potash detonated and set fire to the inflammable sulphur, which imparted its flame to the wood. These were the dip matches, which were introduced in 1812, and were very popular. The sulphuric acid was kept in vials, from the stoppers of which asbestus threads hung down in the inside, and were thereby wet with the acid. If one wanted fire, he drew out the asbestus thread and pressed the head of the match upon it when the fire appeared.