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THE HORRIBLE HISTORY OF FIREWORKS

Children’s TV has always been entertaining, as it doesn’t depend on sex and violence, and the Horrible Histories Series is no exception.

Fireworks have been used around the World for centuries, bringing joy and adding to celebrations for millions but some of them have their history steeped in horrific circumstances.

CATHERINE WHEEL
In the 4th Century, Catherine of Alexandria was a high-born princess and the daughter of a pagan king and queen who converted to Christianity as a very young woman and spent her life finding out as much as possible about her faith as she could which she then passed onto others. She was unafraid to challenge those in power and when she invited Emperor Maxentius to hear about the Christian faith, which was in direct contradiction of his own pagan beliefs. Indeed the Emperor brought together a group of scholars and philosophers to challenge her point of view and basically call her out for her stupidity. However, they were so captivated by the erudite and intelligent Catherine that in fact contrary to changing her mind, they all decided that the Christian Faith was indeed good and they and the wife of Maxentius converted to the new religion. Maxentius was naturally angry about this and in an attempt to dissuade her from her faith, even offered to marry her – she declined, advising that she was wholly devoted to Christ.

Maxentius was incensed and ordered that the scholars be put to death and Catherine in turn was captured, beaten and imprisoned and once he was aware that she had no intention of reverting back to paganism, he ordered her death on the spiked breaking wheel, quite the most horrid of torture devices. However, once again, things didn’t quite go to plan as the wheel fell apart, allegedly ‘aided by angels’. She didn’t however escape death as he had her beheaded but she went on to be canonized in the 4th century AD and is today considered to be one of the most important female saints in the Christian faith.

ROMAN CANDLE
Most Roman Emperors were at best unstable and at worst, positively psychotic but none more so that the lunatic, Emperor Nero.

Nero really despised Christians and Christianity and as the person in charge of the Roman legal system, he pretty much had carte blanche on what laws he could readily impose. The religion at the time basically implied that the Emperor was God whereas Christianity had really taken hold of the hearts and faith of the people of Rome following the death of Jesus at the hands of Pontius Pilate, under the instruction of Emperor Tiberius in the first century AD. Christianity, unlike that which was available to only the hoi polio was a religion for all including rich and poor alike and cared not for wealth and riches which Nero was not about to accept lying down.

Nero, cruel man that he was, used to torture Christians for entertainment, dousing them in tar and sticking a makeshift wick on their heads before lighting them on fire. He was known to laugh at the screams he could hear whilst the slaves died in excruciating pain. Another beautiful piece of pyro with a horrible history.

ROCKETS
The pyrotechnic rocket was developed in the 2nd century BC and were the oldest form of pyrotechnic article used. Initially, they were only used in religious celebrations but went onto become ‘flaming arrows’ which Mongols and Arabs brought to the west in the form of gunpowder. In fact, the Congreve rocket, a British Military weapon was created from the earliest Mysorean rocket, an Indian iron creation which was used in the East India conflict.

Rockets even feature as a weapon as outlined in the words of the American National Anthem where they were used to great effect, killing huge numbers of soldiers.

So, there you have it, the macabre history of fireworks in a nutshell.

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The History of Fireworks

gun powder

The discovery of fireworks, or namely the formulation of gunpowder is believed to have occurred by chance approximately 2,000 years ago in China.

It is thought that a Chinese cook accidentally mixed three common kitchen ingredients:

KNO3
Sulfur
Charcoal

These were heated over a fire and dried to give a black flaky powder which burned with a loud bang when ignited. This crude, early mixture has come to be known in our modern world today as gunpowder.

The Chinese named this fascinating black powder “huo yao” (“Fire Chemical”) and developed it further. The mixture was inserted into the hollow of a bamboo stick and when thrown into a fire, the gases produced by the ignited burning powder inside caused an immense build-up of pressure and blasted the tube apart. The basic firecracker was born.

Thereafter, firecrackers played an essential part to Chinese festivities – weddings, religious rituals – nay cause for celebration heard their bang due to the belief that they were thought to be powerful enough to scare off evil spirits.

It was inevitable that the time would come when people would begin to realise that these now powerful explosives could be applied to warfare. The Chinese were well aware of the killing power these explosives had and within 100 years had not only developed fire arrows (bamboo firecrackers attached to regular arrows and shot at the enemy) but even ‘Ground Rats’. These consisted of propelling rats from inside the bamboo firecrackers and toward the enemy, creating a great psychological effect -scaring soldiers and causing horses to go wild.

Before long, the knowledge of fireworks began to spread to the west. It is believed that Marco Polo on one of his many trips to China transported this invention to the Middle East where European Crusaders brought it to England.

An English Scholar by the name of Roger Bacon (1214-1294) was one of the first Europeans to study gunpowder and write about it. He wrote “….. if you light it you will get thunder and lightning if you know the trick…….” and realised that it was the Salt Peter (KNO3) that was the driving force behind the explosion. On the contrary, he knew his findings had the dangerous potential of completely revolutionising warfare. Therefore, he wrote his findings in code in the hope to save lives in case information reached the hands of the wrong people. This code was not deciphered for hundreds of years.

It was in 1560 that European Chemists managed to make gunpowder as explosive as possible by experimenting with the ratios of the ingredients. The final proportion was set as follows:

1) Salt Peter 75%
2) Charcoal 15%
3) Sulphur 10%

These ratios are still used today some 500 years later.

This brought the end of medieval warfare causing it to come to a close as metal armour could now be punctured by bullets and once seemingly impenetrable walls of castles could be blown to bits by cannon balls.

Credit for developing fireworks into a true art form has to be awarded to the Italians. It was they who were able to develop aerial shells that launched upward and exploded into a fountain of colour; lighting up the night sky to the enjoyment of onlookers.

These firework displays grew more and more elaborate over the years, gradually working their way into the back gardens of everyday families. For nearly 2,000 years, the only colours fireworks could produce were yellows and oranges using steel and charcoal. It was only in the 19th Century that pyrotechnicians had the technology to introduce reds, greens and blues to the night sky.

However, the field of pyrotechnics is far from fulfilled. There are problems that have been stumbled across that are yet to be solved (for example the production of forest green coloured fireworks) and certain areas of the field have not yet even been touched upon or explored.

The field of pyrotechnics has both an exciting history and future and its development continues to this day. Click here to learn more.

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Fireworks History in Books

For centuries fireworks displays have marked epochal events and their anniversaries. Consequently, as part of the celebration of its Three Millionth acquisition, the Brown University Library has acquired the premier collection of books and manuscripts devoted to the history of recreational fireworks. Purchased with funds provided by Paul R. Dupee Jr. ’65, this collection was assembled by Chris A. Philip, one of Great Britain’s foremost pyrotechnists and author of the standard reference work on the subject — A Bibliography of Firework Books (Winchester, 1985). The Dupee Collection on Fireworks, named in honor of its donor, already enjoys an international reputation for the excellence and depth of its resources.

Although celebratory in subject as well as in circumstance, the Dupee Collection is hardly an exotic acquisition for it complements many other of the Library’s historically significant collections. In particular, it enhances classic works on artillery and explosives in the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, the History of Science Collection and the Williams Table Collection — Brown University’s original pre-Revolutionary War Library. The Dupee Collection also supports the H. Adrian Smith Collection of Conjuring and Magicana and related holdings in the performing arts ranging from fête books commemorating major historical events, to broadsides and sheet music.

The origin of the Dupee Collection extends back some thirty years, to the late 1960s when Chris Philip visited Malta. While on that island, he became fascinated by the elaborate firework displays staged by many of the small villages to commemorate their patronal feast days. Upon returning to England he sought out the Reverend Ronald Lancaster, a leading authority in the field of pyrotechnics, who encouraged Philip’s interest and presented him with an inscribed copy of Lancaster’s own work on Fireworks: Principles and Practice (New York, 1972). With that volume and Alan St. Hill Brock’s A History of Fireworks (London, 1949) as guides, he soon began to build his own collection.

Philip’s first serious purchase was a folio-sized eighteenth-century fête book, Relation de l’lnauguration solomnelle de. . . Charles VI (Ghent, 1719), containing four spectacular illustrations of firework displays. He eventually amassed 163 books printed between 1559 and 1985; long runs of eight journal titles, including American Firework News (1981-88); 130 engravings and other prints of historic firework displays; and five small archives of manuscripts, manufacturers’ catalogs, photographs, posters and other ephemera that now constitute the Dupee Collection. This extensive reference collection contains at least one work by over 85 percent of the authors recorded in the Bibliography of Firework Books.

A selection of significant early books in the Dupee Collection includes: Vannocio Biringuccio’s Pirotechnia (Venice, 1559), a later edition of the earliest treatise on manufacturing gunpowder (1540); Joseph Furttenbach’s Halinitro-Pyrobolia (Ulm, 1627), one of the oldest German artillery manuals to discuss “Das Fewrwerck zur Kurtweil und Ernst laboriren”; and Francois de Malthe’s Traité des Feux Artifices pour la Guerre et pour la Recreation (Paris, 1629), the first separate monograph devoted solely to fireworks. Among the eighteenth and nineteenth century titles are the earliest firework treatises to be published in France, Italy and Germany. Also present in the collection are James Cutbush’s A System of Pyrotechny (Philadelphia, 1825), the earliest American contribution to firework literature; Risho’s Hanabi hiden-shu (Osaka, circa 1825), the first Japanese printed book containing instructions for making fireworks; and F. M. Chertier’s Nouvelles Recherches sur les Feux D’Artifice (Paris,1843), which introduced a new palette of colors for fireworks. In combination with the Dupee Collection, the Brown University Library’s holdings of recreational firework books now include works by over 90 percent of the authors recorded in Philip’s bibliography.

John Babington’s Pyrotechnia, or a discourse of Artificiall Fire-works: In which the true Grounds of that Art are plainly and perspiciously laid downe (London, 1635) was chosen from among the wealth of material in the Dupee Collection to be the Brown University Library’s ceremonial Three Millionth Volume. Chris Philip described this book as being “without doubt the most important in Firework bibliography.” It was the first English text to deal exclusively with the recreational aspects of fireworks rather than with their military uses. Babington, an “inferior Gunner” in the service of Charles I, provided directions for making rockets, star-wheels and ground-wheels that were more explicit than any offered by earlier writers, and he provided elaborate designs for fixed displays, such as “How to compose a Castle of fireworke,” as well as for flying figures of St. George and The Dragon that were propelled along taut ropes by rocket power.

The Dupee Collection on Fireworks in combination with the historical strengths of the Special Collections of the Brown University Library has created an amalgamation of resources that provides almost complete documentation for the study of the artistic, social and technical history of firework making from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries.

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