Category Archives: History of Fireworks

Did you know? Guy Fawkes Facts


Guy Fawkes was not actually Hanged Drawn and Quartered. He cheated the executioners by leaping from the gallows as he was being hanged, thus breaking his neck and saving himself from the painful end of being drawn and quartered!

• Although often attributed with being the mastermind of the conspiracy, Guy Fawkes was not actually the ringleader of the Plot, this was a man named Robert Catesby, a well-known Catholic from a well to do family!

• It is often said that even if it had not been discovered, the plot was doomed to failure, as the barrels of gunpowder had grown damp in their time in the cellar, and would not have ignited anyway. This has recently been proved to be incorrect, and although the quality of the gunpowder had deteriorated, it was certainly enough to fulfil the grim task and would have destroyed the House and all inside.

• King James I was a talented scholar and was the author of Daemonologie, a book about the practice of witchcraft and magic in everyday life, he himself was convinced that it was real and sought to understand it. He even considered suitable punishments for the misuse of witchcraft!

• We have Guy Fawkes to thank for the word “guy”. Traditionally, in the days before the 5th of November, children would make “guys” — effigies supposedly of Fawkes — usually formed from old clothes stuffed with newspaper. These effigies would be exhibited in the street to collect money. The word ‘guy’ came thus in the 19th century to mean a weirdly dressed person and hence in the 20th and 21st centuries to mean any male person!

• A commemorative British two-pound coin was issued in 2005 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the plot.

• The Houses of Parliament are still searched by the Yeomen of the Guard before the State Opening, in a ceremony that commemorates the discovery of Guy and his barrels of gunpowder!

• The lantern Guy Fawkes carried in 1605 can still be seen in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and a key supposedly taken from him is in Speaker’s House, at the Palace of Westminster.

• In John Lennon’s song, “Remember”, the date is referenced in the final line. The last verse is, “No, no, remember, remember the fifth of November,” followed by the sound of an explosion!

• Although popular in most corners of the UK, and in other parts of the commonwealth, Guy Fawkes Night is not celebrated in Northern Ireland!

• It was said that never again should the parliament be opened on the 5th, as a superstition surrounded the date. However, parliament was opened on the 5th of November in 1957.


How are fireworks made?

Unless you work in the fireworks industry, this has to be a question that most of us will ask at some time, even if it is the privacy of our own heads. The definition is that it is a device which uses combustion or explosion to produce an auditory and or visual effect. Pyrotechnics (or anything relating to explosives) including fireworks, sparklers, matches, flares and even rocket-propelled boosters as used in space flight all originate from the same principle.

The earliest types of fireworks were made from bamboo or paper tubes filled with ground charcoal (fuel) and sulphur which when lit created a flash of smoke and fire but no explosion. The discovery of saltpetre (KnO3) in the mid-first century AD in China was the turning point in the creation of explosives to this day. Since the combination of the two fuels (charcoal and sulphur) and the oxidizer (saltpetre) and the creation of the first known fireworks around 1100 AD things have never looked back. The Chinese used black powder for fireworks, signals and weapons in the form of bombs and rockets and then implemented its use in mining and road building projects for the next couple of hundred years.

Black powder was used for gunpowder until it was replaced by nitrocellulose in the late 19th century and then by dynamite in the early 20th century but it is still used in fireworks today.

In China, the evolution of the humble firecracker into the full-on massive display shell of today was gradual and continues to this day as more and more effects are created using the basic principles from hundreds of years ago.

In Europe, fireworks began with the use of military explosives adapted for use in celebrating victories and over time progressed to the more ornamental productions designed by Italian pyro specialists in the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Even now in 2013, there are a massive number of native Italian families around the world who are grand-masters of this art form. You only have to hear the names Grucci, Zambelli, Parente and Vaccalluzzo in firework circles to see the look of awe as these are the grand-masters of pyro – we are not worthy pyro gods!! These Italian fireworks were usually shown on lavishly decorated wooden sets, often floating on bodies of water, both for safety and to reflect the beautiful displays.

Although the firework displays of the Italian masters were extremely complex and impressive works of art, the technology of the time limited their colour and brightness but following the introduction of aluminium and magnesium in the 19th century this matter was resolved and then onto the development of potassium chlorate made deeper more intense colour more achievable.

The construction of a firework has changed little over the years as a small tube is packed with flash powder, stars (which are little cubes of an explosive mixture containing a mixture of salts and metals to create colours, sparks and effects) and lift charge to make sure the effects reach the right height.

A fascinating subject which shows the progression over thousands of years from humble beginnings to the multi million pound industry it is today.


History of Italian Fireworks

Italians love all things beautiful – its part of their DNA, but never more so that with Fireworks which also reflect the Italian art of sheer extravagance. Most of the display fireworks seen around this beautiful country are predominantly silver and gold with a very small amount of colour.

Following the ‘accidental’ discovery of black powder in 10th century China, it wasn’t very long until beautiful fireworks were making their way over to Europe, thanks mainly to the exploits of the Mongolian Army. History says that in the mid 13th century, the Mongol leader Ghengis Khan sent his leaders Subutai and Batu Khan to take on the army of Hungary which were supported by armed forces from Germany, Poland and the former Czechoslovakia in a bloody battle which was eventually won by the Mongol army with their ‘fire rats’ and ‘dragon carts’ which both depended heavily on explosives.

There are various ‘historical documents’ that say that Marco Polo, the Italian merchant traveller and explorer, brought the first fireworks into Italy in the late 13th century. However, it was almost 50 years after the death of Marco Polo that the first recorded ‘fireworks display’ was detailed in 1379 in Vincenza where ‘winged creatures’ emitting sparks as they ran along a series of ropes. Later, they created castles, animals and other structures using wood and set the fireworks onto them.

Through the next couple of centuries, there were only around 60/70 people across Europe who had the expertise to put on displays. One such team were the Rugieri Brothers. In 1740, King Louis XV of France brought the brothers from Italy to his magnificent Palace in Versailles to help in the celebrations of the wedding of his grandson Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette. He ordered the creation of a truly legendary display ever seen throughout the Baroque Period. In May 1770, the skies over Versailles were lit up with 20,000 rockets and 6,000 mortars creating bursts of up to 300 metres.

The simple fascination with fireworks has continued throughout the years with Italian flair being at the heart of some of the biggest and best display companies in the World and they remain proud of their heritage which opened up the field of pyrotechnics to the rest of Europe. It is not therefore unusual to learn that some of the biggest are the likes of Parente, Grucci, Zambelli, Fazzoni, Rozzi, Cartiano and de Sousa, all Italian or Italian-American.

Italian Fireworks families are specialist designers and display professionals who still take inspiration from the displays of years gone by from historical data and drawings from the 16th to the 18th Century. However, today, with technology advancing at an astounding rate, they can still use the old school thinking and apply it to today’s display requirements as however you look at it, there has been very little change in the last couple of hundred years in how fireworks are made and designed.