Title page with a grid of small illustrations surrounding the text.

“Fire-workes” for the 17th Century

By Kenneth M. Koyle ~

The 4th of July is a day to celebrate America’s independence, an occasion often marked with a wide range of festivities involving evermore elaborate fireworks displays. As you enjoy these displays, perhaps even igniting a few of your own fireworks (though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you leave the fireworks to the professionals), you may pause to consider the history of these dangerous but undeniably appealing pyrotechnic novelties.

Most people probably know that fireworks originated in China, where the black powder used to make them was invented. The earliest mentions of their use date all the way back to the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century, and they were known to be quite common by the 10th and 11th centuries. By the 13th century they had become popular in Arabia, and over the next few centuries they spread across Europe.

So it is that in the early 17th century we find a French mathematician named Jean Leurechon writing about “fire-workes” in his compilation of “mathematicall recreations,” or entertaining tricks and games based on numbers and mathematics. We have a 1653 English translation of this wonderful little book in our collections here at the National Library of Medicine, produced by the famed mathematician and inventor of the slide rule, William Oughtred. In our edition Oughtred even included descriptions of two versions of his circular slide rule, a double horizontal dial for use in astronomy and a horological ring for determining the time “in all Countreys lying North of the Aequinoctiall (equator).

Two title pages of William Oughtred’s 1653 English translation of Mathematicall Recreations. The NLM copy of the book includes both the printed title page, which would have been included in regular print runs, and an engraved title page with reproduced images from the book, which would have been added by an engraver later.
The first page of a chapter on how to make artificial fireworks, including the composition of rockets.
Fireworkes Chapter page from Mathematicall Recreations, 1653

One might ask why a book about mathematical puzzles and tricks is part of the History of Medicine collections. In and amongst the tricks and puzzles, Leurechon and Oughtred included problems of using a thermometer to determine temperatures, calculating the proportions of human bodies, how to keep wine fresh without ice in the summer (very important when wine was a primary medical supplement), and various ways that optics can be used for magnification and examination. Given these helpful tips and the wide popularity that the book enjoyed, it is very likely that medical practitioners of the time were reading and using this book to help them in their work.

Practicality aside, let’s get back to the fireworks. The final chapter of the book, before Oughtred’s slide rule appendices, is titled “Artificiall fire-Workes: Or the manner of making of Rockets and Balls of fire, as well for the Water, as for the Aire; with the composition of Starres, Golden-rain, Serpents, Lances, Wheels of fire, and such like, pleasant and recreative” (emphasis in the original). This unwieldy title, typical of books in the 17th century, introduces the reader to all the glorious and spectacular pyrotechnical delights that can be created with the detailed formulas contained in the ensuing pages. In the section on rockets, for example, Leurechon tells us how much powder to use for projectiles ranging from two ounces to ten pounds.

A rough woodcut engraving showing rockets, one of them dragon shaped moving along lines strung between houses.After listing the amounts of powder and formulas for the various rocket sizes, Leurechon elaborates on precisely how to roll, shape, and tie the charges to create fireworks of “sundry kindes,” including serpents, reports (loud fireworks), stars, and “golden rain.” To create a serpent firework, for example, Leurechon recommends making the charge “about the bignesse of ones little finger.” A “report” firework is made about the same size, but with “the paper somewhat thicker to give the greater report.” One ounce of powder dust is added to the Sulphur and salt-peter to make “the best kinde of stares,” with the charge tied up in a ball “as great as a hasel-nut or a little wal-nut.” A spectacular “Golden Raine” display required the maker to pack “quilles” of powder into the head of a rocket. Leurechon seemed particularly fond of this type of display, describing it in vivid terms:

“Now if the head of a Rocket be loaded with a thousand of those Quilles, it’s a goodly sight to see how pleasantly they spread themselves in the Aire, and come downe like streames of Gold much like the falling downe of Snow being agitated by some turbulent winde.”

While the instructions for creating elaborate fireworks like the Golden Rain would be useful for big public celebrations, Leurechon also showed a playful (if somewhat reckless) flair by including descriptions of pyrotechnic pranks a reader could pull on family or friends. A “deceitful candle” could be made by filling the bottom half a candle with powder covered by tallow and making the top half of clean tallow or wax, with a wick extending the length of the two halves. When the clean half of the candle was consumed, the powder would ignite “not without great noise and astonishment to those which are ignorant of the cause.” Imagine the laughs as one’s seemingly ordinary candle suddenly exploded in a fiery blast of gunpowder! That’s assuming, of course, that the person being pranked was not killed or maimed by the explosion, and their home was not destroyed by fire.

In another prank, Leurechon recommended placing “a dozen or twenty” of the serpent charges he described earlier into the base of a candlestick, with a hole passing through the socket of the candlestick into the candle itself. When the candlestick was placed on a table and the candle burned down to the socket, a primer would fire the serpents and cause the candlestick to fly around the room, with each serpent giving “a report like a pistol.” To alleviate any concerns that this practical joke might burn down the house, Leurechon asserted, “This will astonish some, thinking the house will be fired, though the whole powder together makes not an ounce, and hath no strength to do such an effect.” His confidence in the safety of these pranks seems a bit overly optimistic, considering the amount of wood and other flammable materials used in constructing European homes at the time. This reflects an interesting difference between modern attitudes and the way Leurechon’s and Oughtred’s contemporaries thought about personal safety in a time when life was “nasty, brutish, and short,” as Thomas Hobbes described it in 1651.

an open book with woodcuts of firworks bursting over a town and men fighting amoung various weapons augmented with fireworks.
One of the more interesting (and concerning) topics in the chapter on fireworks is “night combatants,” where men armed with clubs, maces, and shields laden with gunpowder would fight for the entertainment of spectators.

A further testament to the strikingly different attitudes of 17th century society is provided in a section called Of night-Combatants. In this section, Leurechon explains that the “Clubbes, Targets, Faulchons (a type of sword), and Maces” of night combatants can be filled with charges and rockets that can be “fired at pleasure” so that “if two men, the one having a target in his hand, and the other a Falchon, or Mace of fire, shall begin to fight, it will appeare very pleasant to the Spectators.” The streams of fire, he went on, “will make them more beautifull and resplendent in that action.” And some people think today’s mixed martial arts fights are violent entertainment!

Fortunately, society has changed and evolved over the past 350 years. While fireworks are still a mainstay of many celebrations, we approach them with much more care than in Leurechon’s time. Few would be amused by the prospect of violently exploding candles or rocket-propelled candlesticks, and even if the thought of such pranks might seem comical, recognition of the inherent dangers would temper any such action. Fireworks were relatively new and novel to Europeans in the 1600s, and the risks and dangers may have been less obvious to casual observers. Today the risks are well-known and documented, and we hope our readers will take this into account and exercise extreme caution around fireworks this Independence Day. For more on fireworks safety, visit the Consumer Products Safety Commission’s Fireworks Information Center, or visit NLM’s MedlinePlus for links to over 100 external sources with fireworks safety information.

Infographic showing most injured body parts in fireworks-related injuries.

Portrait of Kenneth M. KoyleKenneth M. Koyle is Deputy Chief of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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