John Walker Biography: How a Home Trained Chemist Invented the Friction Match

You might never hear of John Walker. He invented the simple yet important device almost everyone uses till today – the friction match. It was an invention that caught the world on fire.

The time of inventors and experiments back then are full of traps. Many sought to take advantage of people’s noble objectives to satisfy their greed. See his story unfold from a humble start then meeting his tragic end.

The Son of A Merchant

Image Source: theneweconomy.com

Born in Stockton, England, on 27th of May 1781, John Walker lived in a well off family who owned a grocery and wine shop. He had four siblings which are James, Thomas, Jane, and Mary. His name was actually given to his older brother born in 1779 who died as a baby.

The Talented Apprentice

When he was fifteen, he was given to the care of Mr. Watson Alcock. Mr. Watson was a physician and surgeon and has a practice in John Walker’s hometown.

Here, his fast learning skill really showed. Without any formal medical knowledge, he managed to become a qualified physician by just watching and working with Mr. Watson.

Unfortunately, this apprenticeship didn’t last long. Blood was one of the top things he disliked, so it’s a torture to work as a surgeon.

Soon he moved to London where he studied pharmacy. While studying, he worked together with wholesale druggists, where he acquired his knowledge about the chemical trade.

The Back Room Inventor

After his father died in 1812, he moved in with his two sisters and mother back in Stockton. He then opened a pharmacy just across his father’s old shop.

This was a time where prescription drugs were still uncommon. The science needed for finding the right cure required a combination of both herbal and man-made drugs.

His interest in developing new cures in his workshop brought a certain element to his attention – Phosphorus. Many of his other “cures” were also made inside the workshop which was consumable at best, but it was often dangerous.

The Invention that Sets the World Alight

In his home, he experimented with a flammable paste meant to be used for percussion caps. Then, the stick he used for mixing it suddenly got scraped on furniture then it caught fire.

It’s a controllable flame, not explosive. This is when he suddenly got an idea for his product. He named it “friction lights” and began selling it to the public.

First, it is just the paste stuck on pasteboard, similar to how the mixing sticks the match look. But then he used splints of wood to stick the paste on.

Meeting His Bitter End

The fame of this magical invention spread far and wide. But, his humble attitude held him back because he decided to not patent his invention. This would be his biggest mistake.

Knowing that there was no patent on this invention, people began to create knockoffs which eventually sold more than his matches. Soon, his match line stopped being produced,

No money and failing health, he was still persistent in continuing his experiments. After retiring, John Walker suddenly passed away on May 1st, 1859 at 78 years old, fading into history.

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