People have used fire for thousands of years, and for a long time, making fire happen was tough. Connecticut Country Antiques says many people relied on tinder boxes containing flints, strikers, and something to ignite. In other words, it was a pain.
The idea of a stick that could be struck to make fire went back to 1680, says The Washington Post, but these early attempts tended to make a lot of fire happen all over the place very quickly, and weren’t really useful when it came to precision work. It wasn’t until chemist John Walker turned his attention to the problem that he discovered that he could make a paste with gum arabic, potassium chlorate, and antimony sulfide. The paste could be dried onto the end of a stick and, when it was scraped across a surface, just the right amount of fire happened.
The Pharmaceutical Journal says that the invention kicked off the development of other, more reliable kinds of matches, and made fire much easier to start. It was a huge deal, but it came with a massive catch that has to be mentioned. Early matches were called “Lucifers,” and not only were they fire- and light-bringers, but match-makers working with phosphorus had a good chance of developing what’s called “phossy jaw.” It’s essentially a condition that rots a person’s jaw from the inside out, and according to the Smithsonian, it was widespread until the U.S. outlawed the use of phosphorus in 1910.