If Matches Had Been Invented After Lighters They’d Be the Sensation of the Twentieth Century

George S. Kaufman? Ray Bradbury? Charles Norris? Bennett Cerf? Malcolm Bradbury?

Dear Quote Investigator: A cigarette lighter is an impressive invention, but in some ways it is inferior to a simple match that is ignited by friction. A lighter requires fuel and a spark source; it can malfunction in myriad ways. The following point has been attributed to the prominent playwright George S. Kaufman and to the famous science fiction author Ray Bradbury:

If matches had been invented after the cigarette lighter, they would have been hailed as a huge advance.

A new gadget may supersede an old one despite serious drawbacks. Would you please trace the above expression?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match located by QI appeared in a long-running column called “Trade Winds” in “The Saturday Review”. The columnist, publisher, and anecdote collector Bennett Cerf relayed the following in 1944. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

In Dunhill’s, Charles Norris upset clerks by remarking, “If matches had been invented after your confounded lighters, can you imagine the excitement they would have caused?”

Dunhill sold expensive high-quality lighters. The name Charles Norris was ambiguous. It might have referred to the popular novelist Charles Gilman Norris.

Interestingly, the invention chronologies of the lighter and the match are complex because both devices required modifications and refinements to achieve practicality. Their developments overlapped.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A few weeks later in 1944 the “Minneapolis Morning Tribune” of Minnesota reprinted the short piece from Cerf with an acknowledgement. 2

In 1959 the “Illinois Medical Journal” printed an instance of the saying without an attribution: 3

There is no doubt that hypnosis is the current medical fad. It reminds us of the saying “if matches had been invented after the cigarette lighters all of us would be using matches today.”

In 1968 long-serving U.S.-based BBC broadcaster Alistair Cooke published a collection of his commentaries. In one essay Cooke described the difficulties his friend experienced with cigarette lighters that “fizzed and ejected streams of invisible gas, but no light”. Cooke ascribed the following remark to playwright George S. Kaufman: 4

. . . if matches had been invented after lighters they’d be the sensation of the twentieth century.

In 2005 the “Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Philosophers” credited a well-known science fiction author: 5

What comes later is often presumed to be better (Ray Bradbury once said that if matches had been invented after lighters, people might have thought them superior).

In 2008 the “Telegraph” in London attributed an instance to English author Malcolm Bradbury: 6

Malcolm said that people used lighters because they were a more recent invention than matches; but, if matchbooks had been invented after lighters, it would be obvious to everyone that they were a technological improvement.

In conclusion, Charles Norris Is currently the leading candidate for crafter of this saying based on the 1944 citation. The linkage to George S. Kaufman was weak because it was first published more than two decades later in 1968 after the death of the playwright in 1961.

Image Notes: Illustration of igniting match from HG-Fotografie at Pixabay. Illustration of lighter with flame from Comfreak at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Warren Dicks whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Dicks pointed to the Cooke citation and others.)

Notes:

  1. 1944 July 1, The Saturday Review, Trade Winds by Bennett Cerf, Section: The Literary Scene, Start Page 16, Quote Page 16, Column 2, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1944 July 28, Minneapolis Morning Tribune, Cigaret Lighters (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 6, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1959 December, Illinois Medical Journal: The Official Journal of The Illinois State Medical Society, At the Editor’s Desk, Quote Page 345, Column 1, Illinois State Medical Society, Chicago: Illinois. (Internet Archive archive.org)
  4. 1981 Reprint (1968 Copyright), Talk About America: 1951-1968 by Alistair Cooke, Chapter 38: The New Californian, Start Page 244, Quote Page 247 and 248, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England. (Verified with scans)
  5. 2005, Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Philosophers, Edited by Stuart Brown, Volume 2 of 2, Entry: Karl Popper, Start Page 800, Quote Page 804, Thoemmes Continuum, Bristol, England. (Google Preview)
  6. 2008 March 6, Telegraph, Who ever curled up with a good MacBook? by John Lanchester, London. (Online Telegraph website at telegraph.co.uk) link