What’s the Greatest Invention of the 20th Century?

The Story of Information

frictionMatchToday in 1827, English pharmacist John Walker sold the first friction matches, which he called “Friction Light,” from his pharmacy in Stockton on Tees. The previous year, Walker discovered through lucky accident that a stick coated with chemicals burst into flame when scraped across his hearth at home. Until the first half of the nineteenth century, the process by which fire was created was slow and laborious. Walker’s friction match revolutionized the production, application and the portability of fire.

Frederick Schwartz observed in “The end of the millennium (as we know it)” in Invention & Technology, Winter 2000: “…the first item on [The New York Times’ list of greatest inventions of the 19th century, published in 1899] was one that is often forgotten today: friction matches, introduced in their modern form in 1827. For somebody to whom the electric light was as recent an innovation as the…

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