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Jean Henri Fabre


"A S tinder burns without flame, the glowing spark obtained with flint and steel before the invention of our matches did not suffice for obtaining fire; we had to have recourse to sulphur, which possesses the invaluable property of bursting into flame at the mere touch of a red-hot substance.

"Sulphur is so well known to you as to render any description of it here unnecessary. It is found especially in the neighborhood of volcanoes, where it occurs in the soil, sometimes in masses free from all admixture, sometimes in mingled masses of sulphur and earth or stone. Man's work consists merely in purifying the sulphur by melting it as it comes from the mine.

"In the olden time matches were made of pieces of hemp dipped at one end into sulphur. They were lighted by having the sulphur-tipped end touched either to a live coal that was kept glowing under the ashes, or to a bit of tinder previously kindled by flint and steel. Thus you see the mere lighting of a lamp was a process not devoid of complications. First the flint and steel must be struck together, at the risk of bruising one's fingers by an awkward movement in the dark; then, when the tinder had taken fire after many attempts which often exhausted the patience, it was necessary to apply the sulphur match in order to obtain a flame."

"Our matches of to-day are much to be preferred," remarked Claire. "All you have to do is to strike them against the box cover or against the wall or a piece of wood, no matter where, and the thing is done: the fire burns."

"This inestimable benefit of being able to obtain fire without difficulty and on the instant we owe to phosphorus, a substance discovered, as I have already told you, by a learned investigator named Brandt, who lived in Hamburg two hundred years ago. In attempting the impossible transformation of baser metals into gold, he hit upon an elementary substance until then unknown, and thus gave us the self-igniting sulphur match with its tip of phosphorus.

"If you examine one of our common matches you will see that the inflammable end is coated, first with sulphur, and then, over this, with phosphorus, the latter being colored with a red, blue, or brown powder, according to the maker's fancy. Phosphorus by itself is yellowish and translucent like wax. Its name means light-bearer. When it is rubbed gently between the fingers in a dark place, the fingers are seen to be covered with a pale light. At the same time a smell like that of garlic is detected; it is the odor of phosphorus. So inflammable is this substance that it takes fire when heated only a very little or when rubbed against any hard surface. Hence its use in the manufacture of friction-matches.

"These are little sticks of wood—willow, poplar, or spruce—wrought with the help of steel plates pierced with holes having sharp cutting edges through which the wood is forced by powerful pressure. Then these little sticks, held in position by frames made for the purpose, are first dipped at one end into melted sulphur. Over this first coating, which is designed to feed the flame and give it sufficient intensity to ignite the wood, must be laid a second that will take fire by friction; and this latter coating is composed chiefly of phosphorus. On a marble table is spread a semi-fluid paste made of phosphorus, glue, very fine sand, and some coloring matter. The matches, still held in position by the frames just referred to, have their sulphur tips touched for an instant to this inflammable paste, and are then placed in an oven where the paste is allowed to dry. Friction, aided by the fine sand incorporated in the paste, develops enough heat to ignite the phosphorus; this in turn sets the sulphur on fire, and from the sulphur the flame spreads to the wood.

"Phosphorus is a deadly poison, and therefore matches must be handled with care, this precaution extending even to the empty boxes that have held them. Contact with our food might entail serious consequences. Nevertheless this fearful substance is found in all animal bodies. It is present in the urine, whence Brandt was the first to extract it; it occurs in meat, in milk, and above all in bones. Plants also, especially cereals, contain it, and hence it enters into the composition of flour and of bread."

"What!" exclaimed Claire, "a substance so frightful, a poison so violent, is found in milk, meat, and bread!"

"Don't be alarmed," her uncle reassured her. "We run no risk whatever of being poisoned by drinking a glass of milk or eating meat and bread. The phosphorus there present does not occur by itself, but combined with other substances which deprive it entirely of all poisonous attributes and render it useful, in fact necessary, to the strength of the body. It is to be feared as a poison only in the condition in which it is found in matches. I should add in conclusion that the method adopted by Brandt for obtaining phosphorus—namely, from urine—has long since been abandoned. At the present time it is extracted from the bones of animals."

"Then it is bones that furnish us with phosphorus?" said Jules.

"Yes, bones are by an ingenious device made to yield us phosphorus and, consequently, light and heat."