Irinyi, János

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Irinyi, János

(b. Nagyléta, Hungary, 17 May 1817; d. Vértes, Hungary, 17 December 1895)


Irinyi was the son of an agronomist and estate agent, also named János, who set up Hungary’s first alcohol factory equipped with steam engines. He studied chemistry at the Vienna Polytechnikum and agriculture at the Agricultural Academy in Hohenheim. Irinyi is often called the inventor of the safety match, but this is only partially true, as many researchers contributed to its development. In 1805 Jean Chancel, a Frenchman, invented the “dip lighter,” and the Englishmen John Walker (1827) and Samuel Jones (1832) also have individual claims as pioneers of the friction match. Since the ignition materials in these primitive matches were potassium chlorate and antimony trisulfide, they ignited violently and explosively. The suggestion of adding white phosphorus was contributed by István Rómer, a Hungarian manufacturer, who in 1832 applied in Vienna for a patent for this process.

In 1835, Irinyi, while still a student, had the idea of substituting lead oxide for the potassium chlorate. He thereby obtained an explosionless, noiseless, and smoothly igniting match whose head consisted of white phosphorus, lead oxide, and sulfur. Irinyi sold his invention to Rómer, who thereafter manufactured the new type of match in Austria. Irinyi himself established a match factory in Buda (today Budapest), Hungary, but the volume of business did not meet his expectations. He soon fell into financial difficulties and had to give up the factory. This failure was probably caused in part by his many scientific and public activities.

Irinyi wrote several books and worked to create an artificial Hungarian technical language in which all chemical terms would be “Magyarized”; this language prevailed in scientific usage only for a very short time. Irinyi also participated in the revolutionary events of the year 1848, and during the Hungarian war of independence he was charged with the organization and supervision of the Hungarian manufacture of arms. Upon the defeat of the uprising he was imprisoned. Following his release he worked in various steam-powered corn mills and sugar factories. He spent the last years of his life in retirement in Vértes, cultivating a small plot of land he had inherited.


I. Origingal Works. Irinyi’s most important works are Über die Theorie der Chemie im allgemeinen und die der Schwefelsäure insbesondere (Berlin, 1838); and A vegytan elemei (“Principles of Chemistry”; Nagyvarad, 1847).

II. Secondary Literature. On Irinyi’s contribution to the development of the match, see Ullmans Encyklopädie der technischen Chemie, XIX (Munich, 1969), 263; J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, IV (London, 1964), 197. Two biographical treatments, both in Hungarian, are by J. Nyilasi in Természettudományi közlöny (1960), pp. 516-518; and by Z. Szökefalvi Nagy and E. Táplányi in Magyar Vegyészeti Muzeum Közlémenyei (1971), no. 1, pp. 3-31.

Ferenc SzabadvÁry