Irinyi's memorial relief at the location of the former factory, Budapest, Mikszáth Kálmán Square.
IRINYI JÁNOS – THE HUNGARIAN PROMETHEUS
Olga Vállay Szokolay
Matches, as we now know them, are relatively noiseless and, unless handled irresponsibly, safe. They were not always that way. But let’s deal with this in proper sequence.
Irinyi János was born at Nagyléta, Bihar County on May 17, 1817. Some argue the location and even the date but then we Hungarians like to challenge facts from different viewpoints, don’t we… He came from an old Calvinist noble family, the son of Jánossy Róza and Irinyi János, manager of the estate of the Baron Mandel at Nagyléta.
Young János attended schools at Nagyvárad and Debrecen, then studied chemistry at the Technical University in Vienna and in Berlin. In 1836, during a lecture of one of his professors, renowned Paul Meissner from Transylvania, he witnessed a research attempt that went awry. The professor rubbed sulfur with lead dioxide, promising the audience that the sulfur would ignite. It did not happen. Instead of making fun of the glitch, Irinyi later commented that had the professor used phosphorus instead of sulfur, it would have promptly ignited.
This sudden idea gave birth to the invention of noiseless matches, by replacing potassium chlorate with lead dioxide. The greatest problem of phosphoric matches containing potassium chlorate was that they ignited with an explosion, spewing some of the chemical mix around, evoking constant complaints. Some cities even prohibited their sale.
Still technically a teenager, in need of money, János sold the idea to Hungarian-born Viennese chemist István Rómer, for 60 forints.
In Berlin, in 1838, Irinyi wrote his first scientific treatise dealing with the theoretic questions of chemistry, especially those of acids. He pointed out that while some acids contain no oxygen, some alkali do. This study drew significant attention from German chemists, opening him doors to scientific circles.
After his short stay in Berlin, Irinyi went to Hochenheim to attend the famous academy of Economics. As a 22-year-old, having grown up on an estate, he realized how backward Hungary’s agriculture was. He decided to utilize the fruits of his studies to benefit his homeland.
In 1839, he returned to Hungary and dove into the local scientific life. He wrote scores of treatises. One of those, dealing with chemical affinity, analyzed sodic soils (soils containing excess salts which impede availability of water and ultimately plant growth) – a widespread problem in that country – and studied remedies of the problem.
In the same year, as he realized that he could not get a teaching position, Irinyi founded a match factory in Budapest. He filed his application to the City on April 8, 1840, to get permission for the manufacture of
“such little wooden ignition sticks that do not clamor (sic!) at ignition and can be produced without sulfur, thus not producing any odor” (oly gyujtófácskák készitésére, amelyek fellobbanásukkor nem zajonganak s kén nélkül is készithetők, miáltal semmi szagot nem csinálnak.)
The factory flourished, producing half a million matches daily. Yet his competitors, Rómer included, did everything in their power to ruin the prosperous plant and Irinyi – the very inventor of noiseless phosphoric matches – was forced to sell the factory, due to senseless bureaucratic intervention.
In 1844, he co-authored a book summarizing the development of the professional Hungarian chemical language.
By 1847, he had published several books and managed his 100-acre estate at Vértes. Utilizing his western experiences, he introduced plowing, sowing and harrowing with machinery. He also fertilized the soil with potash and lime. In the same year, the first volume of his study titled “The Elements of Chemistry”, an overview of chemical science’s basics including elements and compounds, was published. The second volume had to be cancelled due to the events of the 1848 Revolution.
During the Revolutionary War, the Kossuth government appointed Irinyi, in 1849, to oversee the gunpowder and cannon manufacturing plant at Nagyvárad. As a very patriotic Hungarian nobleman, he had already been involved with the revolutionary movements. Legend has it that with his younger brother, József, a journalist and politician, they wrote the famous 12-point petition.
Upon the defeat of the Revolution, both brothers were imprisoned at Pest. After their release in 1850, János returned to his Vértes estate, to wait for a better era of Hungary’s science when such talent and education as his would not be wasted but be utilized for the common good. Unfortunately, he waited in vain.
The new methods of cultivation introduced at his estate cost a lot of money and caused indebtedness that he could never resolve.
He decided to look for employment. A newly formed insurance company hired him as financial counselor. Later, in 1863, he worked for a steam mill in the same capacity.
Irinyi married late: at age 51 he wed Baranyi Hermin. Both their son, Lajos and daughter, Janka died in infancy.
Irinyi János was one of the most talented Magyar chemists. He became the full master of the new chemistry based on A.L. Lavoisier’s teachings. It was a brave stance since the scientific community of both Vienna and Pest subscribed to the outdated theory of Jakab Winterl who contradicted Lavoisier’s findings with a passion. He found a more liberated scientific atmosphere in Berlin.
However, his dream of having a laboratory never materialized. The scientific community was so limited that the labors, sacrifices and achievements of one human life could only be honored but not rewarded.
Like so many other activists, Irinyi became crushed by the failure of the Freedom Fight and never published anything anymore. He retired to his Vértes estate at age 65, where he lived until his death. He was one of the victims of the era’s politics, and thus could never bring his talents to full fruition.
He died at Vértes, on December 17, 1895, at age 78.
Irinyi has been credited as the inventor of the noiseless phosphoric matches, yet his life’s opus involved so much more in the propagation of new theories in the field of fresh views of chemistry. As he himself stated: “Had I not been able to utilize the theory of chemistry beyond this foolishness, I would wring my own neck today.”
Our Titan, our Hungarian Prometheus, gave us the fire and was punished for it. Yet, our fire has never, ever been extinguished…
Special thanks to my son-in-law, B.C., for his professional assistance.
Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching. She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.