The first documented use of a spark plug in an internal combustion engine was attributed to the Belgian Engineer Jean Joseph Étienne Lenoir in 1859. Lenoir is known for developing the first internal combustion engine, which burned a mixture of coal gas and air. The air-fuel mixture it aspirated was ignited by a "jumping spark" ignition system, which he patented in 1860.
Reliably igniting over 20 million combustion cycles while surviving exposure to the extreme temperatures and pressures of ignited fuel would prove to be a formidable challenge. All spark plugs are fundamentally composed of two electrodes separated by an insulator. These electrodes converge at a «spark gap», where spark generation occurs. As the initial current flows from the ignition coil to the spark plug’s electrodes, the flow of electricity is initially blocked by the insulating properties of the air-fuel mixture within the gap. As the voltage pulse ramps up, the potential created between the electrodes begin to restructure the gases within the spark gap. As the voltage increases further, the insulating limit or the dielectric strength of the spark-gap gases begin to break down, causing it to ionize.
The first spark plugs had a very minimal set of operational requirements. Their main design concerns were the plug's fit and position and its ability to maintain an operating temperature range that would allow the plug end to self-clean by burning off deposits. The thermal properties of a spark plug are designated by a relative heat range.
The emergence of leaded gasoline in the 1930s would also cause aggressive deposit buildup on the mineral insulator ends. To keep up with this, construction was shifted towards a single piece design composed of a ceramic called sintered alumina.
Sintered alumina plugs operated at much higher temperatures, which helped counteractact the fouling issues caused by leaded fuels via deposit burn-off. It’s electrical insulation properties also allowed much higher voltages to be used, tolerating up to 60,000 volts. This would be further improved by the addition of ribs which increased the surface area of the insulator. Modern spark plug still used sintered alumina and can tolerate voltages well past 100,000 volts.