John Walker was born in Stockton-on-Tees in 1781.
He went to the local grammar school and was afterwards apprenticed to Watson Alcock, the principal surgeon of the town serving him as an assistant. He had, however, an aversion to surgical operations, and had to leave the profession, turning instead to chemistry. After studying at Durham and York, he set up a small business as a chemist and druggist at 59 High Street, Stockton, around 1818.
He developed a keen interest in trying to find a means of obtaining fire easily. Several chemical mixtures were already known which would ignite by a sudden explosion, but it had not been found possible to transmit the flame to a slow-burning substance like wood. While Walker was preparing a lighting mixture on one occasion, a match which had been dipped in it took fire by an accidental friction upon the hearth. He at once appreciated the practical value of the discovery, and started making friction matches. They consisted of wooden splints or sticks of cardboard coated with sulphur and tipped with a mixture of sulphide of antimony, chlorate of potash, and gum, the sulphur serving to communicate the flame to the wood.
The price of a box of 50 matches was one shilling. With each box was supplied a piece of sandpaper, folded double, through which the match had to be drawn to ignite it. He named the matches “Congreves” in honour of the inventor and rocket pioneer, Sir William Congreve. He did not divulge the exact composition of his matches.
Two and a half years after Walker’s invention was made public, Isaac Holden arrived, independently, at the same idea of coating wooden splinters with sulphur. The exact date of his discovery, according to his own statement, was October 1829. Previously to this date, Walker’s sales-book contains an account of no fewer than 250 sales of friction matches, the first entry bearing the date April 7, 1827. Already comfortably well off, he refused to patent his invention, despite being encouraged to by Michael Faraday and others, making it freely available for anyone to make. He received neither fame nor wealth for his invention, although he was able to retire some years later. The credit for his invention was attributed only after his death.