Have you ever seen someone strike a match? The match rubs against a scratchy strip and a split second later – poof! It makes fire! But how does a match work, anyway?

Join Molly and co-host Maxwell as they get all fired up about matches! They’ll explore the three things a fire needs to ignite and learn how lighting a match is just a super fast chemical reaction that sometimes smells like farts. Plus, we’ll hear your hot new names for matches and of course, a new mystery sound!

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ANNOUNCER 1: You're listening to Brains On, when we're serious about being curious.

ANNOUNCER 2: Brains On is supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation.




MAXWELL: Why is it so dark in here?

MOLLY BLOOM: Maxwell, welcome to--


--ouch my knee. I mean, welcome to Brains On headquarters. So glad you're here.


MOLLY BLOOM: Here. Check it out, I even wore my super snazzy sweater vest today. See? It's purple with lightning bolts on it.

MAXWELL: See what? I can't even see anything. It's totally dark in here.

MOLLY BLOOM: Is it? I hadn't noticed.


MOLLY BLOOM: OK, OK, you're right. The power went out earlier and I've been waiting for it to come back on. But don't worry, we'll figure it out. We just have to find our way out of here first. What if we--



MAXWELL: Ugh, what is this stuff? It is so warm and sticky.

MOLLY BLOOM: Oh, that, it's just a new concoction Marc came up with, hot banana soup. It's like if dinner and dessert had a baby but that baby was yellow, sickly sweet, and kind of chunky. Here, let me get you a towel.


Oh. There's my sequin collection. I've been looking everywhere for it.

MAXWELL: Sequins? Hot banana soup? This is getting messy.

MOLLY BLOOM: I promise I have everything under control, Maxwell. Whoops.


Just need to find-- aha! Found the matches. Now I'll just light this candle and--



MAXWELL: Thank goodness for matches. Oh, nice sweater vest, Molly.

MOLLY BLOOM: Thank you. And I love your sticky yellow sequin shirt. Oh, wait.


MOLLY BLOOM: It's OK, we have some spare shirts around here somewhere.


You're listening to Brains On from APM Studios and I'm here with my co-host Maxwell from Houston. Hi, Maxwell.

MAXWELL: Hey, Molly.

MOLLY BLOOM: Hey, Maxwell. We are so glad you're here. Today we're talking about those incredible little sticks that make fire-- matches. And as always, today's episode was inspired by questions from a few of our listeners.

ELIOT: Hi, my name is Eliot and I am from Pembroke, Ontario. I was wondering, how does a match ignite? What's inside the match that makes it light? How does it work? Thank you.

STELLAN: Hi. My name is Stellan.

LUKA: Hi. My name is Luka.

STELLAN: And we are from Brooklyn, New York. And we were wondering, how do matches light fire?

MOLLY BLOOM: Thanks to Eliot, Stellan, and Luka for sending in those excellent questions. So Maxwell, your family doesn't really use matches, right?

MAXWELL: I just saw one for the first time yesterday.

MOLLY BLOOM: So when you saw a match for the first time, were you surprised by what it looked like?


MOLLY BLOOM: They're really tiny. It's kind of amazing that they can make fire so well. Now what's your favorite thing that you use fire for?

MAXWELL: The birthday candles. I blew out the candles when it was my birthday last year.

MOLLY BLOOM: I love blowing out the candles. It's a fun thing to do. Have you used fire outside to toast marshmallows?

MAXWELL: Yeah, we roasted marshmallows and we roasted sausage. We roasted blueberry sausage.

MOLLY BLOOM: That sounds wonderful. So is food more delicious when you make it outside?

MAXWELL: Yeah. it is. It's awesome.

MOLLY BLOOM: So cool. Matches are really useful and interesting. Like, did you know the name match may have come from the Greek word [GREEK]? [GREEK] means wick. That's the stringy thing that you light on a candle or an old lamp. But it can also mean slime or dangling snot, like how a booger dangles from your nose. I bet that's s-not where you thought that would go, huh? Anyway, in English, the word match can mean lots of different things like a pair of things that go together.

MAXWELL: That's a match.

MOLLY BLOOM: A game of tennis.

MAXWELL: That's a match.

MOLLY BLOOM: Someone who can challenge you.

MAXWELL: You met your match.

MOLLY BLOOM: It's kind of odd that something as unique and important as a match that makes fire should have such a totally common name. So we asked you to help us come up with some new dynamic names for matches.

MAXWELL: And your responses were fire.


CHARLIE: If I was going to come up with a new name for a match, it would be flick fire.

OWEN: My idea for a new name for matches is small magical fire producer.

NOAH: My match's name is amber twigs.

CLARE: My new name for matches is firestarters.

GABRIEL: I'd call it a fire stick because it makes fire.

VERA: I would call matches fire pops.

GALILEE: I would call them the fire bugs because at the end of them, it kind of looks like little bugs.

LONDON: My name for matches would be fire flamers.

SOPHIA: I would call matches tiny torches.

MOLLY BLOOM: Thanks to Charlie, Clare, Noah, Owen, Gabriel, Galilee, London, Vera, and Sophia for sending those in. So Maxwell, if you could come up with a new name for matches, what would it be?

MAXWELL: I'd called them Maxes.

MOLLY BLOOM: [CHUCKLES] You would name them after yourself?

MAXWELL: Maxes because Max is closer to the Maxwells.

MOLLY BLOOM: I like that a lot. I would love to use some Maxwell-branded matches.


So before we talk about how a match works, first, we should say that matches are not toys. They get really, hot can start fires, and burn you. So don't play with them. Really, please don't do it.

ROBOTIC VOICE: Matches are not toys.


Don't play with them.

MOLLY BLOOM: To understand how matches ignite, first, we have to talk about what you need to make fire.

MAXWELL: For a fire to happen, you need three things-- fuel.

MOLLY BLOOM: Right, fuel, that's the thing that burns like wood or gasoline.

MAXWELL: Second, you'll need oxygen.

MOLLY BLOOM: Oxygen is all around us. It's an air molecule, which means it's so tiny, you can't see it, but it's there. It's the same stuff our bodies inhale. [INHALES AND EXHALES DEEPLY]

MAXWELL: And finally, you'll need heat.

MOLLY BLOOM: You need enough heat to kick off a chemical reaction that gets a fire going. And we're not just talking a little heat.

MAXWELL: You'll need a lot of heat to start a fire.

MOLLY BLOOM: Right. If you leave a piece of wood out in the sun, that's not enough heat to light it up. So to recap, you need heat, oxygen, and fuel. If you're missing one of these three things, you won't have fire. These three ingredients are known as the fire triangle. And we've made a little song to help you remember.


WOMAN: (SINGING) The three things you need for a fire to light, three things you need for a fire so bright. Number one is fuel. Think of wood or paper. Number two is oxygen, like air vapor. Number 3 is heat. Throw it in and combine to make your flame thicker and shine. Want to start a fire? Three things you need are fuel, oxygen, heat.

MAXWELL: That song will be stuck in my head for the rest of time.

MOLLY BLOOM: Me too. But now, we'll always remember the fire triangle. Worth it in my opinion.

KIDS: Brains on!

MOLLY BLOOM: The genius of matches is that they combine all three of these ingredients into one tiny package.

MAXWELL: Right. The match is made of wood or paper, its fuel.

MOLLY BLOOM: And when you rub the match on the side of the box, it creates enough heat to get the chemical reaction going. Bada bing, bada boom, you got fire.

MAXWELL: So simple. So elegant.

MOLLY BLOOM: Isn't it wild to think that for most of human history, we didn't have them?

MAXWELL: Well, we did have fire. How did we do that?

MOLLY BLOOM: Great question. Sometimes early humans would just find naturally occurring fire like, say, from a lightning strike.


Then they'd take that fire and keep it going by adding more wood when it started to die down.

MAXWELL: What if they couldn't find fire from lightning?

MOLLY BLOOM: Then they'd have to make a fire from scratch. They'd start with some dry grass or leaves, you know, something that burns super easily. Then they'd need to make a spark to light that stuff up. Once you got that burning, you could move the flame to something bigger and heavier like logs.

MAXWELL: Sure, but where did the spark come from?

MOLLY BLOOM: There are a few different ways you can make a spark. One way is to take two specific kinds of rocks and hit them together hard enough to create a spark.


There's also another way that you might have seen people in movies or TV shows use. You stand a stick straight up on another piece of wood and twirl it back and forth really fast.


MAXWELL: That makes friction.

MOLLY BLOOM: Exactly. Friction is a force that happens when you rub two things together and it makes heat. Here's a cool, thing try rubbing your hands together right now.


Feel that warmth? That's thanks to friction.

MAXWELL: Friction breaks the heat.

MOLLY BLOOM: For sure. Like we mentioned, you have to twirl that stick really fast to make friction and you have to keep it up for a while to start a fire.

MAXWELL: That sounds like a lot of work.

MOLLY BLOOM: It is a lot of work. That's why ancient people would do everything they could to keep their fires going. Once you have a fire going, it's way easier to keep it burning than to start a new one.

MAXWELL: That's why matches are a big deal.

MOLLY BLOOM: Exactly. When they came along, they changed everything. We'll hear about that in a sec. But first, it's time for the--


CHILD 1 (WHISPERING): Mystery sound.

MOLLY BLOOM: Are you ready for the mystery sound, Maxwell?


MOLLY BLOOM: Great. Here it is.


Do you have any guesses?

- It sounded like a plate.

MOLLY BLOOM: Hmm, a plate, very good. Do you want to hear it again?




What do you think this time?

MAXWELL: It sounded like a tray.

MOLLY BLOOM: Hmm, a tray.

MAXWELL: It sounds like you're smashing the tray on the floor.

MOLLY BLOOM: I like that guess. You'll have another chance to guess at the end of the show.


We're working on an episode all about UFOs or Unidentified Flying Objects. They're mysterious. They're curious. But are they real? Imagine some aliens showed up at your front door interested in learning more about planet Earth. Where would you take them? Maybe to your favorite comic book store, your Aunt Piper's house for a stack of hot pancakes? Maxwell, where would you take a bunch of aliens?

MAXWELL: To the aquarium.

MOLLY BLOOM: What's your favorite thing at the aquarium?

MAXWELL: I like seeing fish.

MOLLY BLOOM: I also love the aquarium. Listeners, we want to hear from you. Record yourself describing where you'd take a group of alien visitors and send it to us at brainson.org/contact. While you're there, you can send us mystery sounds, drawings, and questions.

MAXWELL: Like this one.

CHILD 2: Why do we need our toes so much?

MOLLY BLOOM: That's brainson.org.

MAXWELL: And keep listening.

ECHOING VOICE: Brains on, on, on.

MAXWELL: You're listening to Brains On. I'm Maxwell.

MOLLY BLOOM: And I'm Molly. Today we're talking all about how matches work. We just heard how fire is a chemical reaction between three ingredients--


MOLLY BLOOM: That's the thing that burns like paper or wood.


MOLLY BLOOM: Which starts the fuel on fire.

MAXWELL: And oxygen.

MOLLY BLOOM: Either from the air or something that makes oxygen like a chemical.

MAXWELL: That's our fire triangle-- fuel, heat, oxygen.

MOLLY BLOOM: And before the break, we heard how fire used to be really hard to make. It was so hard, that once someone had a fire going, they tried to never let it go out. But then the invention of matches changed everything. Once people had matches, it was much easier to start a fire.

MAXWELL: But it took a lot of experimenting to get them just right.

MOLLY BLOOM: Funny you should mention it. I just picked up a movie from the library about this. Let's check it out.


BROCK MCROCKSON: It's time for the biggest mishaps in matchmaking history, where we explore the mini experiments on the road to inventing matches. I'm your host, Brock the Jock McRockson.

MOLLY BLOOM: Whoa, this is a little more intense than I thought it would be. Is that guy wearing three sweatbands?

BROCK MCROCKSON: Match mishap number one. Back in the late 1600s, a chemist in England was tinkering around. And he figured out that when you rub two chemicals together, phosphorus and sulfur, they burst into flame.

MAXWELL: That sounds kind of dangerous.

BROCK MCROCKSON: It was dangerous and the fire was hard to control. Oh-oh, fast forward a hundred years to match mishap number two when inventors in France created something they called the phosphoric candle.

MOLLY BLOOM: Oh, yeah, I've read about this. The phosphoric candle was a piece of paper dipped in the chemical phosphorus. That paper was kept inside of a glass tube. All you had to do was smash the glass tube and the oxygen in the air would cause the paper to light on fire.

BROCK MCROCKSON: Excuse me, who's the expert here? Is this your extreme match invention TV show? Do you have a line of high quality protein shakes in grocery stores across America? Can you bench press 500 pounds without breaking a sweat?


MAXWELL: Extremely.

BROCK MCROCKSON: As I was saying, the phosphoric candle worked, sort of. It started things on fire but all that glass was pretty expensive to make, so people didn't really use these in their homes.

MOLLY BLOOM: Yeah, can you imagine having to a glass tube before you start a campfire?

MAXWELL: Or light birthday candles.

BROCK MCROCKSON: Which brings us to 1827, almost 200 years ago, before cars or electricity. That's when an English pharmacist named John Walker came up with a pretty extreme invention-- wait for it-- a tiny wooden stick that burst into flame when you hit it against a piece of sandpaper.

MOLLY BLOOM: The first modern match.

BROCK MCROCKSON: Coming up, the five mega disasters along the road to inventing the can opener. Don't touch that--

MOLLY BLOOM: You know, those mishaps were pretty important. Each one taught us something and got us closer to inventing matches.

MAXWELL: Right. That's just how science works.

MOLLY BLOOM: Totally. You have to try different things before you find something that works.


CHILD 3: Brains on!

MOLLY BLOOM: So the first modern match was invented almost 200 years ago and it looked pretty similar to the matches we have today, a wooden stick that you strike on a surface to light on fire, which brings us back to the question that started this whole episode--

MAXWELL: How exactly does a match work?

MOLLY BLOOM: Well, there are two main types of matches out there--


--the ones that you can strike on any surface to light and the more common type called safety matches. To light a safety match, you have to strike it against the side of a match box. Those are the ones we're talking about here. So let's start with the match itself. A match can be wood or paper and it always has a little colored tip on one end. And in that tip, there's usually a mix of two chemicals that help the match catch on fire-- sulfur and potassium chlorate.

MAXWELL: On the match box, there's usually a strip on the side.

MOLLY BLOOM: That strip has another special chemical plus powdered glass for friction, which is why it's scratchy. When the match rubs on the strip, it causes a chain reaction and starts the match on fire.

MAXWELL: That reaction happens really fast.

MOLLY BLOOM: Yeah, in a fraction of a second, as soon as the match strikes the match box. To see what's going on, we're going to have to slow this way down. This calls for the Slow Mo Ray.

SLOW MO RAY: Hey, hey, hey. Slow down.

MAXWELL: I've always wanted to use the Slow Mo Ray, Molly. Say something really fast.

MOLLY BLOOM: If a dog chews shoes, who's shoes does he choose? If a dog chews shoes, who's shoes does he choose?

SLOW MO RAY: Slow down.

MOLLY BLOOM (SLOWED DOWN): If a dog chews shoes, who's shoes does he choose? If a dog chews shoes, who's shoes does he choose?

MAXWELL: So cool.

MOLLY BLOOM: OK, back to matches. And remember-- one more time-- matches aren't toys. Please don't play with them. Don't do it, please. Thank you.

ROBOTIC VOICE: Matches are not toys.


Don't play with them.

MOLLY BLOOM: Now let's fire up the Slow Mo Ray again so we can see what happens as a match ignites. Ready?


SLOW MO RAY: Slow down.

MOLLY BLOOM: Ooh, here we go. First, the match rubs against the match box and creates that friction we talked about earlier.


Remember, friction happens when things rub against each other and it makes heat.

MAXWELL: That's one corner of our fire triangle.

MOLLY BLOOM: Next, the heat from the friction causes one of the chemicals on the side of the match box to light on fire.


That little burst of fire causes one of the chemicals in the match to release oxygen and that extra oxygen helps boost the fire-- the second corner of our fire triangle. Finally, another chemical in the match called sulfur catches on fire, which helps burn the wood or paper of the match itself.


MAXWELL: That's a view.

MOLLY BLOOM: The last corner of the fire triangle. Fun fact, sulfur smells like rotten eggs. That's why when we light a match, it can sometimes smell a little farty. So lighting a match is really just a super duper fast chemical reaction that sometimes smells like farts.


You know, for something so small and simple looking, matches have a lot going on. I talked to Brooks Gunderson from the DD Bean Match Company about this. They have a small factory in New Hampshire that's been making matches since 1938.

BROOKS GUNDERSON: It's three generations now that the plant has made it through. It's pretty much stood the test of time as right now we are the last plant in North America making matches, book matches.

MOLLY BLOOM: They make about 1 million matchbooks every day and ship them out all over the country.

MAXWELL: A million matchbooks a day?

MOLLY BLOOM: Yeah, and they make all kinds of them, joke matchbooks that people give as silly gifts, special fancy ones for weddings, matchbooks for restaurants, anything you can think of. Brooks said that the match business has changed a lot since the company opened its doors more than 80 years ago. But people are still using matches.

BROOKS GUNDERSON: I think what's really neat about matches is we've grabbed matches that this factory made 50 years ago and brought them in to our quality control lab. And 50 years on the shelf, they didn't perform any different than it would be if we made them an hour ago. So their sustainability is unbelievable if they're, you know, stored properly.

MAXWELL: Whoa, those matches still worked?

MOLLY BLOOM: Yeah. Pretty wild, right? What do you think you'll be doing in 50 years, Maxwell?

MAXWELL: I'm going to play with my toys.


MAXWELL: Playing with my toys and I'm going to be 60.

MOLLY BLOOM: You'll be 60 and you will be playing with your super fun toys.

MAXWELL: Yeah, and I'm going to be watching TV.

MOLLY BLOOM: I like it. I too would like to be playing with my toys and watching TV. That sounds wonderful. Or maybe in 50 years, we'll be lighting birthday candles with some matches that were made today.


MAXWELL: For a fire to happen, you need three things-- fuel, oxygen, and heat.

MOLLY BLOOM: For a long time, it was really hard to make fire, so fire was a very precious thing. But the invention of matches changed all that.

MAXWELL: A match, it lights through a super fast reaction.

MOLLY BLOOM: When a match rubs on a match box, special chemicals on the match and the box react together and, poof, fire.

MAXWELL: That's it for this episode of Brains On.

MOLLY BLOOM: This episode was written by Shahla Farzan and me, Molly Bloom. It was produced by Rosie DuPont, Anna Goldfield, Aron Woldeslassie, Nico Gonzalez Wisler, Anna Weggel, Ruby Guthrie, and Marc Sanchez. We had editing help from Sanden Totten, sound design and music writing by Rachel Breese, and we had engineering help from Alex Simpson and Shannon Harrison. Beth Perlman is our executive producer. The executives in charge of APM Studios are Chandra Kavati, Alex Schaffert, and Joanne Griffith. Special thanks to Tashauna Drake.

MAXWELL: Brains On is a non-profit public radio program.

MOLLY BLOOM: There are lots of ways to support the show. Subscribe to Brains On Universe on YouTube or you can watch animated versions of some of your favorite episodes or head to brainson.org where you can send us mystery sounds, drawings, and questions. And you can subscribe to our Smarty Pass. It gives you a special ticket to Brains On Universe bonus content plus ad-free episodes. OK, Maxwell, are you ready to listen to that mystery sound again?

MAXWELL: Yes, please.



What do you think?

MAXWELL: It sounded like a tray again.

MOLLY BLOOM: OK, you're going to stick with your original guess. I love it. Would you like to hear the answer?


OWEN: Hi I'm Anchorage, Alaska, and that was the sound of me banging my mom's EarPods on her dresser.

MOLLY BLOOM: [CHUCKLES] Whoa. Banging something on a dresser, that is a hard mystery sound. I think you were really close, something was banging. You thought it was a tray but it was really an EarPod. Is that surprising?

MAXWELL: Yes, it is.

MOLLY BLOOM: Yeah, that's a tricky one.


Now it's time for the Brains Honor Roll. These are the kids who keep the show going with their questions, ideas, mystery sounds, drawings, and high fives.



We'll be back next week with and episode all about flying robots in the sky-- satellites.

MAXWELL: Thanks for listening.

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