John Walker – Inventor of the Friction Match

John Walker – Inventor of the Friction Match

John Walker (1781 – 1859) was born on 29 May 1781 in his parents house at 104 High Street, Stockton.

His father John Walker, was the proprietor of a grocers and wine merchants shop at the same address, who had married Mary Peacock in 1766. Their first son, James, was born in 1777 and the second, John (1779), only lived for eleven months and thus when their son was born he was also called John. Following this John and Mary had another three children – Thomas, Jane and Mary.

About the age of fifteen John Walker was apprenticed to Mr. Watson Alcock a surgeon who was physician to the Marquis of Londonderry. Originally the surgery was at the corner of Ramsgate but later moved to 25 Bridge Road. There is not much detail of this period of his life but he worked as an assistant surgeon and it was claimed by his great niece that he was a “fully qualified doctor”. However he did not remain in this profession for long and it has been suggested that he could not stand the sight of blood! After abandoning this profession he went to London where it is not known whether he studied pharmacy or not but he did so with wholesale druggists in Durham and York.

John Walker’s father died in 1812 but his mother and two sisters moved to a cottage in Cleveland Row overlooking the River and this is where John joined them on his return to Stockton. In 1819 John opened a shop as a “chymist and druggist” at 59 High Street, almost opposite his father’s shop. In the nineteenth century the science of pharmacy was still in its infancy with the transition from natural cures to scientific prescribing. And when John Walker came to open his shop he was thirty eight years old and in addition to a wide experience of botanical studies and herbal healing he had a sound training in the use of drugs in human and veterinary practice and a keen interest in chemistry.

The shop might have been picturesque but the work was arduous and uncomfortable. The shop door would be open a lot of the time with very little luxury in the shop. There was a workshop to the rear of the shop where John Walker carried out his experiments. A lot of his experimental work was with light producing agents including phosphorus. In addition to these experiments he also made a wide range of medicines for man and beast! Many of these “cures” would be banned today as being dangerous.

The experiments that led to his break through came in 1826-27 and he was working at his home on the Quayside with combustible paste that he was developing perhaps as material to be used in percussion caps for the gun trade. He knew the mixture would flare-up but was not explosive. The eureka moment came when he scrapped the mixing stick on the hearth at his home and it “spluttered and caught fire”. This was the breakthrough – not the flammable compound but realizing it would ignite a spill dipped in it. By 1827 John Walker was selling these “friction lights” or matches to the public at 1s 2d (6 new pence) per 100 in a tin case with piece of sandpaper to ignite them. Originally the matches were made of pasteboard but 3 inch splints of wood were soon substituted – the friction head was added to the stick by dipping. These matches were very popular in the town, with one early customer being the Stockton to Darlington Railway, but their fame soon spread. John Walker did not patent his invention as he thought it would benefit mankind however other inventors were not so benevolent and did protect their “spin off” developments. Thus with the others especially “Lucifers” rapidly gaining a well established market John Walker ceased production in the early 1830s.

John Walker continued to trade a chemist and eventually bought a house in the most desirable part of the town, The Square, where Municipal now stands. He was accompanied by his sisters Jane and Mary. He continued to trade as a chemist until he retired and sold the business in 1858 but unfortunately died the following year. The significance of his invention was of major importance as the ability to use and control fire is integral to human civilization. Three of the essential needs of mankind have always been food, shelter and the availability of fire for cooking, heating and lighting.

Throughout history the servant who could not maintain the fire or generate a flame would be liable to censure. Over the years the most practical way to generate a flame was to use a tinder box. This was where a sparks, created with a flint and steel, would be used to ignite the tinder which was any dry inflammable material usually charred rags, moss or dried grass. In addition there were mechanical tinder boxes used by the more affluent. Thus when instant fire in the form of “friction lights” that could be carried around and used whenever needed were needed was a major breakthrough. The original friction lights came in a round tin that also held a fold of sandpaper to strike them.

John Walker was practically penniless when he died on 1 May 1859, aged 78. He is buried in the grounds of St Mary’s Church in Norton. Some of Walker’s original ‘Friction Lights’ are held by Preston Hall Museum and Grounds where there is also a generic Victorian chemist shop named after John Walker.

Two photographs of Walker exist but they are obviously not the same person so there is still some controversy over which image is actually John Walker…