From the Vault: Artificial Fireworks

Fri, 06/02/2017 - 11:40am -- mfarias

It’s the weekend before the Fourth of July, which means it is time to prepare your homemade fireworks! Well perhaps we wouldn’t recommend that, but we did find a book in our vault that could help if anyone were so inclined. Artificial Fireworks: Improved to the Modern Practice, From the Minutest to the Highest Branches (1776) by Captain Jones provides an in-depth survey of ingredients, compositions, preparations, machines, molds, and manners that have been used to craft fireworks through time. In his preface, Captain Jones states that he does not intend to give the origin of fireworks, “which some affirm were used in the Trojan War.” Instead, he is content to know that they have been around for a long time and “continue so in all polite nations.”


The principal ingredient in fireworks as defined by Jones is “saltpetre.” It is a “volatile body,” which he cautions must be properly cleaned and refined before using to prevent accidents or malfunctions. Potassium nitrate is one of several nitrogen-containing compounds that is collectively referred to as saltpetre or saltpeter that is still commonly used in fireworks today. It is not obvious exactly what compound Jones is using in his experiments, but saltpeter in some form is present in all of them. In one section, he details how to create powders of different colors, including red, yellow, green, and blue. In all of these, he uses saltpeter. For red, he also includes sulphur, amber, and blood stone. Yellow requires sulphur and wild saffron. The instructions for green list “verdegrease” (verdigris) and sulphur again while blue is the first to move away from sulphur, combining indigo and brimstone with the requisite saltpeter. There is a slightly different method of preparation for each colored powder, but the presence of saltpeter is consistent.


Throughout the book are illustrated plates featuring elaborate diagrams, each with its own description. Figure number 51 is called the “Illuminated Yew-Tree.” To make it, the first requirement is that you have “a tree made of wood. The middle piece, or stem, on which the branches are fixed, must be 8 feet 6 inches high: at the bottom of this piece draw a line, at right angles, 2 feet 6 inches long at each side…” With great detail, Jones creates this tree on which you would then “place illuminating port fires on the top of each [branch], as many as you choose: behind the top of the stem fasten a gerbe, or white fountain, which must be fired at the beginning of the illuminations on the tree.” Many of his designs are for displays of shooting fireworks affixed to stationary structures on the ground, such as this wooden tree display.

Jones only briefly considers the safety of his creations, namely when discussing the volatility of the ingredients if not properly refined, but it is probably fair to say that most of his experiments should not be recreated at home. Instead, we hope you have a safe holiday weekend observing some professionally made fireworks from a comfortable distance. Happy Fourth of July from the Redwood!