Lighters Were Invented Before The Match

Note: This is a guest article contributed by frequent TIFO visitor and owner of, Jon.

Today I found out that lighters were invented before the match.

This one had me scratching my head for a bit.  There are several sites out there that say the match came first.  However, by definition of the “match”,  they are incorrect.  The match they are referring to, the one they say came before the lighter, was nothing more than sticks (not tooth-pick size, but actual sticks, they found laying around) soaked with a flammable chemical for easy lighting later with tinder.  The sticks then burst into flame when you provided sparks or fire by some other means.  So when someone tells me that matches were invented in Northern China in 577, I’ll say, “define Match.”

So what about the lighter?  They were invented in the 16th century out of nothing more than a converted flintlock pistol.  Now you can argue that a pistol is no lighter.  This is true.  But if you look up the definition of “Lighter” in the dictionary, it states; “A mechanical device used in lighting fires, cigarettes, cigars, or pipes.”  So by definition, the converted pistol was indeed the first lighter.

I know what you are thinking,  “What does the definition of “Match” say…   It states, “a slender piece of wood, cardboard, or other flammable material tipped with a chemical substance that produces fire when rubbed on a rough or chemically prepared surface.”  Sure they had sticks coated in a flammable substance, but they didn’t rub it to light it; they had to provide the flame or sparks to light it.  So it was simply an easier way of making fire than just lighting a stick not chemically coated.

So now that semantic controversy is out of the way, here are some match and lighter facts.

  • It wasn’t until 1826 that a man by the name of John Walker from England invented the first actual match.  (you know the kind you rub, it needed friction to light)  However, Walker’s matches weren’t very reliable so the match (at the time) never really saw success.  It wasn’t until 5 years later a man named Charles Sauria of France managed to develop a match that used white phosphorus.  These little beauties were a little too successful.  They often would ignite even when you didn’t want them to.  And, as it turned out, white phosphorus was highly toxic.  The workers who worked in the match plant often suffered from a horrible degeneration of the jawbone, known as “phossy jaw.”  Even though the health hazards were well known, white phosphorus continued to be used on all matches until the 1900’s when the U.S. government along with Europe forced manufacturers to switch to a nontoxic chemical.
  • So what about the lighter you ask; well as you know the first ones were nothing more than the converted pistols in the 16th century.  But it wasn’t until 1823 (note this is before the invention of the ACTUAL match in 1826) a German chemist named Johann Wolfgang Dobereiner is credited with inventing the first lighter.  It was often called the “Dobereiner’s Lamp.”  It worked by a reaction of hydrogen to platinum sponge, which gave off a large amount of heat.  However, it didn’t see much success either.   It wasn’t until Carl Auer Von Welsback (that is one hell of a name, just saying) patented the ferrocerium (it’s often misidentified as flint) in 1903.  It was this that made lighters as we know them today, possible.  It is when the flint is scratched that it produced a large spark that is responsible for lighting the fuel in lighters.

Bonus Facts:

  • The matchbook matches were patented in the United States by Joshua Pussey in 1892.  (Yes, he was a Pussey)
  • In 1888 Ebenezer Beecher patented the first match making machine.
  • Today’s match making machines can produce over 10 million matches per 8 hour shift, with minimal people to monitor the operation.
  • George G. Blaisdell invented the zippo lighter in 1932, in Bradford, Pennsylvania
  • In the 1950s there was a switch in fuel choice from naphtha Naphtha to butane.
  • In 1998 BIC introduced the child-safety feature, a metal shield over the flint wheel, seen on all modern BICs.
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  • Actually, your appeal to the dictionary only applies to our modern-day matches. If you look up the historical uses of the word ‘match’, you will see that the older type of matches are still matches (source: OED) The modern dictionary simply chose its definition because the other types are obsolete. Hence the dictionary has a false exactness in its definition.

    Why would we even call the “old matches” matches if they weren’t matches at all? Clearly the dictionary definition you use is not intended to be used in an argument. It is much more likely to be intended for people who do have no idea about what a match is, and hence it only gives a first (over simplified) account.

    • Lukas – That isn’t really relevant in the slightest. When you want to find out if the match or lighter came first, you’re thinking about the modern kind of match. Just like how it isn’t relevant that chariots were a thing when talking about who invented the car.

      • I side with Lukas.

        Dobereiner’s lamp is also not a “modern lighter”, so by your argument it is also irrelevant. If we follow that reasoning, the problem reduces to “Which company was founded first: Redhead matches or Zippo lighters” and everything is lost.

        You are entitled to use any definition of “match” and “lighter” that you like, but if you resort to dictionary definitions then you have to accept that not all dictionaries have the same definitions.

  • I’ve always found it delightfully entertaining to watch the old movie of man’s early attempt at flight. It wasn’t until the Wright brothers came along that any of those inventions really earned the label of ‘airplane’.

    I believe the same could be said of your ideas of early ‘lighters’.

    My 14 y/o son was spouting your rhetoric today. LOL

    I pointed out that one would have extreme difficulty lighting their cigarette or pipe with your so-called early lighters, we both had a good laugh.

    A failed attempt at an airplane is not actually an airplane.

    A gun is not a lighter. Neither is something that doesn’t work.

  • Matches are for beginners, Lighters are for old pros.

  • You’re just playing games with semantics. The dictionary may say slender, but now define slender! A twig is slender to a branch; a match is slender to a torch. Who cares? Face it, man…the match clearly came first. As for using a gun as a lighter, people would not confuse nor recognize a flintlock gun as a lighter…just because it can produce a spark. Two rocks can produce a spark (or metal against a rock), but it is not sustained. I don’t care what the dictionary says…no person is gonna recognize a sparking device as a “true” lighter. Last, you mention a Dobereiner’s Lamp…wouldn’t this be akin to an alcohol burner more than a lighter? I do not believe anything deemed a lamp was auto-igniting.

    I think you’re just trying to act like you got a leg up on your audience as you play games with semantics.

    • The article says a “modified” flintlock pistol was a lighter.

      The key is not just the spark, but the fact that the spark is used to ignite something much more flammable (gun powder or some such) which can then start a fire. Banging two rocks together doesn’t reliably light fires, but a modified flintlock can.

  • Dobereiner’s lamp was approximately 40cm tall and featured two large glass bulbs… Go ahead and tuck one of those bad boys in your pocket…

  • Well, with reference to using a flintlock pistol as a lighter. The flint lock was later evolution of black powder guns. Before using flint and steel to make sparks, the “match lock” firearm existed. The definition of “match” back then was a string soaked in flammable chemicals. When dried and then lit, would smoulder for for quite a while. What we might think of as a really slow burning fuse. the “match” was used to light cannon on naval vessels etc. So the term “match” pre-dates the flint lock.
    “Match cord was often used from the 15th century until about 1630, when the flintlock started its rise to prominence”

  • OrganizedConfusion

    The first modern, self-igniting match was invented in 1805 by Jean Chancel, assistant to Professor Louis Jacques Thénard of Paris. The head of the match consisted of a mixture of potassium chlorate, sulfur, sugar, and rubber. The match was ignited by dipping its tip in a small asbestos bottle filled with sulfuric acid. This kind of match was expensive and its usage was dangerous, so Chancel’s matches did not become common.

  • You’re wrong- the first match was invented in 1805 by Jean Chancel, so today YOU found out that the match came before the lighter

  • Dude if the lighter came before the match then way was the FUCKING match made in the first place they didint even have FUCKING GAS in the 16th century

    • Guess what Nate your fucking wrong they their have been all types of ignitable gases through out history and actually through out the fucking history of the world it’s methane is one and so is oxygen and both are ignitable and guess what else you have a foul fucking mouth.

  • my great grandfather held a patent in the 1880s for a desk that had a built in lighter for pipes and cigars. Somebody else probably invented the lighter but he got credit for the idea of attaching it to a desk!!

  • The first modern, self-igniting match was invented in 1805 by Jean Chancel, assistant to Professor Louis Jacques Thénard of Paris. The head of the match consisted of a mixture of potassium chlorate, sulfur, sugar, and rubber.

    An igniting match

    A match is a tool for starting a fire. Typically, modern matches are made of small wooden sticks or stiff paper. One end is coated with a material that can be ignited by frictional heat generated by striking the match against a suitable surface.[1] Wooden matches are packaged in matchboxes, and paper matches are partially cut into rows and stapled into matchbooks. The coated end of a match, known as the match “head”, consists of a bead of active ingredients and binder; often colored for easier inspection. There are two main types of matches: safety matches, which can be struck only against a specially prepared surface, and strike-anywhere matches, for which any suitably frictional surface can be used.

  • Who cares anyway? It doesn’t matter who is right in this debate because the knowledge of which came first isn’t even important. Ask yourselves, what can you accomplish with that knowledge? Absolutely nothing, nothing at all.