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09/18/2003

Strikables

Wouldn’t you know? Last week I discussed pinhole leaks in
copper plumbing. I had no sooner posted that column than a
roofer arrived to investigate the source of a leak in our bedroom.
His diagnosis – pinhole leaks in copper! Specifically, in the
copper valley between two sloping sections of our roof. His
opinion was that acid originating in our cedar shingles was the
culprit. If you read last week’s column, you will know that it
was an alkaline, not an acid condition that was part of the
problem with the plumbing leaks. To correct our problem, we
have the option of either putting in a new valley, at a cost of over
$2,000, or just tar the valley and hope for the best. The latter
option is about 10 times less expensive. While reflecting on
these options, the monsoons have returned and neither approach
is viable until Isabel has passed.

In the same column, I also discussed the problems posed by
perchlorate contamination of the Colorado River. I noted that
one of the uses of perchlorate was in matches. While ruminating
on the copper valley options, I came across mention of the
invention of the match in an article by Ken Chowder in the
September 2003 issue of the Smithsonian magazine. The article,
titled “Eureka”, deals with the roles of accident and serendipity
in many inventions. Chowder launches the article in the spirit of
two quotes, one by Mark Twain in a notebook – “Name the
greatest of all the inventors. Accident”. The other quote, by
Louis Pasteur – “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

Offhand, one might think that a chemist versed in the science of
combustible materials would have invented the match. John
Walker was indeed a “chemist”. However, he was English and
to the Brits a chemist is a pharmacist. Why a pharmacist in 1827
would be mixing potassium chlorate and antimony sulfide
together I don’t know. In fact, I don’t know why a pharmacist
would be mixing this combination together today. At any rate,
Walker was mixing these two compounds with a stick and the
mixture stuck to his stick. According to the article, he couldn’t
shake off the mixture and scraped the stick on the stone floor.
Well, you guessed it, the stick burst into flames.

Walker had the prepared mind. He quickly began to market his
“sulphuretted peroxide stickables” and the modern match was
born. This bit of history sent me to the source so often
referenced in these columns, our 1962 edition of The World
Book Encyclopedia. The first sentence in the World Book’s
article on the match struck me as showing how times have
changed over the past four decades – “The average person in the
United States lights about nine matches every day.” With the
decrease in the number of smokers, I suspect that number is way
too high today. I would be surprised if I light even a handful of
matches in a year, especially since our little Hibachi has been
replaced with a plug-in electric grille.

I probably wouldn’t be writing about the match if it weren’t for
the fact that I found the inventor of book matches (in 1892) was
one Joshua Pusey, a Philadelphia patent lawyer. Pusey being my
mother’s maiden name, I naturally took a keener interest in the
history of the match. In its early stages, the match was one of
those consumer products that certainly would not pass muster in
today’s environmentally conscious marketplace. Walker’s
strikables became known as “Congreves” and were sold with so-
called “glass paper”, akin to our sandpaper. When the user drew
the Congreve through a fold in the glass paper, there were little
explosions and a shower of sparks. Aside from the mini-
fireworks, the odor produced was sharp and unpleasant. Another
matchmaker of the day sold his matches as “Lucifers” and
warned against their use by anyone with delicate lungs.

The match field moved rapidly. By 1830, a French fellow named
Charles Sauria got rid of the need for the glass paper by
inventing the first match that would strike “anywhere”.
Unfortunately, Charles used either white or yellow phosphorus
on the tip of his strike-anywhere matches. In the U.S. a few
years later, Alonzo Dwight Phillips also began marketing
matches with the phosphorus tips. The problem was that workers
(and users?) exposed to phosphorus fumes developed something
called necrosis. Necrosis ended up crippling or killing thousands
of people and the problem persisted even into the early 1900s.

In 1900, the Diamond Match Company bought a French patent
on a material, a sulfide of phosphorus that was nontoxic. You
would think that necrosis was no longer a problem. But
surprisingly, the compound that worked in France didn’t work in
the U.S. because of the differences in climate in the two
countries! By 1910 the necrosis problem was so serious that the
U.S. almost drove the match industry into extinction by placing a
very high tax on white and yellow phosphorus. Curiously, a
naval architect, William Armstrong Fairburn, came to the rescue
when, in 1911, he tweaked the French formula so it would light
up in the U.S. climate. The necrosis problem was solved.

Meanwhile what of my cousin Joshua Pusey? (I’ve adopted him
in the belief that all Puseys are related somehow.) He was
marketing his book matches in books of 50 matches but doesn’t
seem to have been too clever. He put the striking surface on the
inside of the cover, next to the tips of the matches! Book
matches didn’t become popular until World War I. Fortunately,
by this time Joshua had sold his patent to Diamond Match and in
that company’s hands, book matches became safe and convenient
to use.

Climate came into the picture again during World War II. The
U.S. Army, having to fight the Japanese in the wet, steamy
jungles of the South Pacific wanted a waterproof match. Aside
from any direct military uses for the matches, smoking was at its
peak and GIs needed desperately to light up those cigarettes.
One Raymond Cady obliged by coming up with a match that
employed a water- and heat-resistant material. The match would
light, even after 8 hours under water!

What a coincidence. After finishing the above paragraph, I had
lunch, followed by a trip to the bathroom, where I started to read
the October issue of Scientific American. There I found the
following quote reprinted from the October 1903 issue of the
magazine: “By a law of May 10, 1903, Germany forbade the use
of white phosphorus in the making of matches.” The reprinted
item goes on to say that a new mixture of non-poisonous red
phosphorus and potassium chlorate was to be substituted for the
“dangerous and deleterious” white phosphorus. The new mixture
was harder to ignite but that was an advantage when compared to
the white version, which could be ignited by the rays of the sun.

I had planned to end here but the chemist in me can’t help but
emphasize the huge differences between the white and red forms
of the same element, phosphorus. A hundred milligrams of the
white stuff will kill you; the red is non-poisonous. White
phosphorus melts at 44 degrees Centigrade (it would be molten
on a hot summer day in Arizona); the red melts at around 595
degrees! I could go on but you get the idea.

I can’t end without a tribute of sorts to my late cousin Phyllis,
who suffered with a very rare disease throughout most of her life.
Wishing to determine if this disease was genetically embedded in
the Pusey side of her family, she embarked on a genealogical
search. Amazingly, she managed to trace the name back more
than 30 generations to a William Pusey, who was in the service
of Danish King Canute. As a reward for his services fighting the
Saxons in 1016, he was given a manor in Berkshire, England. I
may not be wrong in claiming a kinship with Joshua of the book
matches!

Allen F. Bortrum



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-09/18/2003-      
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Dr. Bortrum

09/18/2003

Strikables

Wouldn’t you know? Last week I discussed pinhole leaks in
copper plumbing. I had no sooner posted that column than a
roofer arrived to investigate the source of a leak in our bedroom.
His diagnosis – pinhole leaks in copper! Specifically, in the
copper valley between two sloping sections of our roof. His
opinion was that acid originating in our cedar shingles was the
culprit. If you read last week’s column, you will know that it
was an alkaline, not an acid condition that was part of the
problem with the plumbing leaks. To correct our problem, we
have the option of either putting in a new valley, at a cost of over
$2,000, or just tar the valley and hope for the best. The latter
option is about 10 times less expensive. While reflecting on
these options, the monsoons have returned and neither approach
is viable until Isabel has passed.

In the same column, I also discussed the problems posed by
perchlorate contamination of the Colorado River. I noted that
one of the uses of perchlorate was in matches. While ruminating
on the copper valley options, I came across mention of the
invention of the match in an article by Ken Chowder in the
September 2003 issue of the Smithsonian magazine. The article,
titled “Eureka”, deals with the roles of accident and serendipity
in many inventions. Chowder launches the article in the spirit of
two quotes, one by Mark Twain in a notebook – “Name the
greatest of all the inventors. Accident”. The other quote, by
Louis Pasteur – “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

Offhand, one might think that a chemist versed in the science of
combustible materials would have invented the match. John
Walker was indeed a “chemist”. However, he was English and
to the Brits a chemist is a pharmacist. Why a pharmacist in 1827
would be mixing potassium chlorate and antimony sulfide
together I don’t know. In fact, I don’t know why a pharmacist
would be mixing this combination together today. At any rate,
Walker was mixing these two compounds with a stick and the
mixture stuck to his stick. According to the article, he couldn’t
shake off the mixture and scraped the stick on the stone floor.
Well, you guessed it, the stick burst into flames.

Walker had the prepared mind. He quickly began to market his
“sulphuretted peroxide stickables” and the modern match was
born. This bit of history sent me to the source so often
referenced in these columns, our 1962 edition of The World
Book Encyclopedia. The first sentence in the World Book’s
article on the match struck me as showing how times have
changed over the past four decades – “The average person in the
United States lights about nine matches every day.” With the
decrease in the number of smokers, I suspect that number is way
too high today. I would be surprised if I light even a handful of
matches in a year, especially since our little Hibachi has been
replaced with a plug-in electric grille.

I probably wouldn’t be writing about the match if it weren’t for
the fact that I found the inventor of book matches (in 1892) was
one Joshua Pusey, a Philadelphia patent lawyer. Pusey being my
mother’s maiden name, I naturally took a keener interest in the
history of the match. In its early stages, the match was one of
those consumer products that certainly would not pass muster in
today’s environmentally conscious marketplace. Walker’s
strikables became known as “Congreves” and were sold with so-
called “glass paper”, akin to our sandpaper. When the user drew
the Congreve through a fold in the glass paper, there were little
explosions and a shower of sparks. Aside from the mini-
fireworks, the odor produced was sharp and unpleasant. Another
matchmaker of the day sold his matches as “Lucifers” and
warned against their use by anyone with delicate lungs.

The match field moved rapidly. By 1830, a French fellow named
Charles Sauria got rid of the need for the glass paper by
inventing the first match that would strike “anywhere”.
Unfortunately, Charles used either white or yellow phosphorus
on the tip of his strike-anywhere matches. In the U.S. a few
years later, Alonzo Dwight Phillips also began marketing
matches with the phosphorus tips. The problem was that workers
(and users?) exposed to phosphorus fumes developed something
called necrosis. Necrosis ended up crippling or killing thousands
of people and the problem persisted even into the early 1900s.

In 1900, the Diamond Match Company bought a French patent
on a material, a sulfide of phosphorus that was nontoxic. You
would think that necrosis was no longer a problem. But
surprisingly, the compound that worked in France didn’t work in
the U.S. because of the differences in climate in the two
countries! By 1910 the necrosis problem was so serious that the
U.S. almost drove the match industry into extinction by placing a
very high tax on white and yellow phosphorus. Curiously, a
naval architect, William Armstrong Fairburn, came to the rescue
when, in 1911, he tweaked the French formula so it would light
up in the U.S. climate. The necrosis problem was solved.

Meanwhile what of my cousin Joshua Pusey? (I’ve adopted him
in the belief that all Puseys are related somehow.) He was
marketing his book matches in books of 50 matches but doesn’t
seem to have been too clever. He put the striking surface on the
inside of the cover, next to the tips of the matches! Book
matches didn’t become popular until World War I. Fortunately,
by this time Joshua had sold his patent to Diamond Match and in
that company’s hands, book matches became safe and convenient
to use.

Climate came into the picture again during World War II. The
U.S. Army, having to fight the Japanese in the wet, steamy
jungles of the South Pacific wanted a waterproof match. Aside
from any direct military uses for the matches, smoking was at its
peak and GIs needed desperately to light up those cigarettes.
One Raymond Cady obliged by coming up with a match that
employed a water- and heat-resistant material. The match would
light, even after 8 hours under water!

What a coincidence. After finishing the above paragraph, I had
lunch, followed by a trip to the bathroom, where I started to read
the October issue of Scientific American. There I found the
following quote reprinted from the October 1903 issue of the
magazine: “By a law of May 10, 1903, Germany forbade the use
of white phosphorus in the making of matches.” The reprinted
item goes on to say that a new mixture of non-poisonous red
phosphorus and potassium chlorate was to be substituted for the
“dangerous and deleterious” white phosphorus. The new mixture
was harder to ignite but that was an advantage when compared to
the white version, which could be ignited by the rays of the sun.

I had planned to end here but the chemist in me can’t help but
emphasize the huge differences between the white and red forms
of the same element, phosphorus. A hundred milligrams of the
white stuff will kill you; the red is non-poisonous. White
phosphorus melts at 44 degrees Centigrade (it would be molten
on a hot summer day in Arizona); the red melts at around 595
degrees! I could go on but you get the idea.

I can’t end without a tribute of sorts to my late cousin Phyllis,
who suffered with a very rare disease throughout most of her life.
Wishing to determine if this disease was genetically embedded in
the Pusey side of her family, she embarked on a genealogical
search. Amazingly, she managed to trace the name back more
than 30 generations to a William Pusey, who was in the service
of Danish King Canute. As a reward for his services fighting the
Saxons in 1016, he was given a manor in Berkshire, England. I
may not be wrong in claiming a kinship with Joshua of the book
matches!

Allen F. Bortrum