Sky Light

4th November 2011

Fireworks have come a long way since their origins nearly fifteen hundred years ago.

Emma Carter investigates…

Although today we mostly associate fireworks with Guy Fawkes Night, their history stretches back to ancient China, where an explosive powder made of a heady mixture of charcoal, sulphur and saltpetre was contained in small sections of hollow bamboo. The sound of these first firecrackers was so loud that the Chinese believed the noise would scare away the evil spirits. Almost any event – from eclipses of the moon to births, deaths, weddings, coronations and especially the Chinese New Year – became a fitting occasion for the noisemakers.

Fireworks made their way to Europe sometime in the 13th century, possibly brought back from the East by the Crusaders or by Marco Polo. The further development of gunpowder is credited to a medieval German monk, Berthold Schwarz. Known as ‘The Powder Monk’, he dabbled in alchemy, and was called Schwarz, meaning black, because of his addiction to the ‘black arts.

Italy seems to have been the first country in Europe to make and appreciate fireworks on any appreciable scale. In the 1400s the Florentines built large plaster figures that spewed orange fire from their eyes and mouths. As demand for the new spectacle grew, Florence became the centre for an expanding manufacting industry, providing materials for shows all over the continent.

The people who used to make and handle fireworks were known as ‘firemasters’, ‘wild men’ or ‘green men’, and they were in great demand. They took charge of the entertainment at celebrations such as military victories, religious festivals and coronations. They were similar to jesters, running through the crowd warning people to back away and letting off firecrackers. It wasn’t uncommon for firemasters to be killed or injured in the course of their work.

Displays were rare in England until the end of the sixteenth century, but the lavish parade for the coronation of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, in 1533, featured a group of pyro-technicians called The Greenmen, who enshrouded themselves in wet leaves for protection from the hand-held fireworks which they set off amongst the awe-struck crowd along the route.

In the middle of the nineteenth century firework technology developed still further, when Italian pyrotechnics experts hit upon the idea of adding potassium chlorate to the mix, which put more oxygen into the chemical reaction and made it burn faster and hotter. Manufacturers became more ambitious and audiences more demanding. Elaborate set-pieces were a huge attraction… massive fire pictures, some up to six hundred feet long, and ninety feet high. They portrayed historical events on an epic scale: the Battle of Trafalgar, the Siege of Gibraltar and the Eruption of Vesuvius to name just a few. There was even a fashion for ‘living fireworks’ – actors dressed in asbestos who danced, wrestled, boxed and even walked the tightrope aflame. Today’s elaborate firework extravaganzas seem, fortunately, tame in comparison.

Ground-based firework displays are no longer the norm, of course, with the exception of the still-popular sparkler and its lovely light patterns. Today, state-of-the-art aerial displays are controlled by computer sequencing that initiates the electronic ignition of explosive charges and synchronises the skyborne bursts of shells to music – but the vivid bursts of light and colour and sound in the night sky still depend to a great extent on subtle combinations of enchanted ingredients, often passed down from generation to generation of fireworks experts: as much an art as a science…

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