John Walker – Inventor of the Friction Match
John Walker, the inventor of the friction match, was born in Stockton-on-Tees on 29 May 1781.
After his education he became an apprentice to Watson Alcock, one of the town’s most important surgeons, but his interests lay mainly in botany and chemistry and in 1819 he opened a chemist and druggist’s shop at 59 High Street, Stockton. This is, perhaps appropriately in the vicinity, of the Boots the Chemist shop today.
Considering that the friction match is one of Stockton’s most famous inventions, it is surprising that John Walker stumbled across his discovery purely by chance. Walker often experimented with chemicals and on 27 November 1826 he used a splint to stir a mixture of antimony, sulphide, potassium chlorate, gum arabic, starch and water. The mix dried on the end of the splint and later it was accidentally scraped against his hearth creating a spark. Walker quickly realised that he could utilise this substance in a number of different ways and he started experimenting further to perfect his mixture.
When he was satisfied, he dipped sticks into the substance, bundled them up and started handing them out around the town. They proved to be a great success, and in April 1827 he began to sell them. It is recorded that a solicitor from Stockton named Mr Hixon was the first person to pay a shilling for one hundred of the ‘Sulpurata Hyper-Oxygenata Fricts’ and although he had to pay an extra 2d for the tin, the sandpaper to scrape them against was free! At a later date Walker changed the name of his invention to the somewhat snappier ‘Friction Lights’.
It is believed that Walker felt his invention was not significant enough to patent even though in 1830 Michael Faraday, the famous scientist, tried to encourage him to do so, and finally it was a Londoner named Samuel Johnson who patented the matches under the new name of ‘Lucifers’.
As a result 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.