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Dont try this at home How to make fireworks 17thcentury style

With Guy Fawkes night (5 November) and Diwali (11 November) on the horizon, the skies of Leicester will be lit up over the next few weeks by firework displays - and a rare book held within the University's Library sheds light on how 17th century fireworks were made.

Pyrotechnia or, A Discourse of Artificial Fire-works was written by John Babington and was published in 1635. It was the first description of recreational fireworks written in English and contains instructions on how to make and fire rockets and how to make various types of wheels for setting off rockets and other pyrotechnics. The book provides us with some clues as to what form early fireworks took and serves as something of a practical 'how-to' guide for building fireworks (which we do not condone following due to potentially explosive results)!

Dr Simon Dixon from the Special Collections in the David Wilson Library said: "We might be forgiven for thinking that fireworks are a modern innovation, but in fact they have been around for centuries. Originating in China, they were first introduced into Europe in the medieval period as instruments of war.

"At the same time, a tradition developed of using pyrotechnics to represent the fiery mouth of hell in Christian plays and festivals. Moving into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries fireworks started to become a feature of celebrations held to mark military triumphs and other festivities."

As well as traditional fireworks, the book also covers some more elaborate constructions - with perhaps the most impressive being a patriotic firework display representing St. George fighting with an apparent fire-breathing dragon.

The book is written in short, clear passages, and was intended as a practical guide for making fireworks - and  annotations on two pages of the Library’s copy suggest that it was used for this purpose at the time by people who wanted to add a little flare to their event.   

Pyrotechnia is available for consultation in the University’s Special Collections, with the health and safety advice that, however tempting it may be to make your own 17th-century pyrotechnic castle, it is probably wise not to try Babington’s instructions at home!

Reference: Simon Werrett, ‘The Power of Pyrotechnics’, History Today, Nov. 2010, pp. 10-16.

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