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Fantastic Fireworks

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It’s that time of year when leaves cover the ground, there’s a chill in the air, and household pets look distinctly nervous.

Hallowe’en has just passed and this weekend will see fireworks displays throughout Britain as the bonfires are lit for Guy Fawkes Night. But even the most spectacular pyrotechnics would be hard-pressed to beat these 17th-century creations.

Fiery dancers and a dragon, 1635 (Science Museum)

This engraving is from the Science Museum Library‘s copy of Pyrotechnia or, A discourse of artificial fire-works, written by John Babington and published in 1635.  A musical device ‘with anticks dancing’ is followed by a dragon spewing flame from its eyes, mouth, and … ahem … anus.

Pyrotechnia's water-borne fireworks (Science Museum)

There were also firework devices designed to float on water – this illustration shows a sailing ship, a mermaid, and another dragon about to do battle with a trident-waving Neptune. We’ve digitized more pages from Pyrotechnia on our Ingenious website.

It wasn’t all fun and games – Babington, a gunner, was also aware of the applications of gunpowder in warfare, and experimentation with devices such as these was a good way to try out about different powder ingredients. You can find out more in this book by Simon Werrett.

In the meantime, have fun at the fireworks if you’re off to a bonfire this weekend – hope you enjoy them as much as this young man!

Blowing the pocket money on fireworks, 1949 (NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society)

Written by Alison Boyle

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  1. Ruskin

    So great to see someone spell ‘Hallowe’en’ correctly. Perhaps we can all go ‘guising’ to like the good old days.

  2. Frankie Roberto

    Pyrotechnia looks amazing.

    Any idea if the rest of the book (ie including the actual writing) has been digitised anywhere?

  3. Alison Boyle, Curator of Astronomy and Modern Physics

    Hi Frankie,

    Yes, you can find it on the European Cultural Heritage Onlne (ECHO) project.

    http://libcoll.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/libview?url=/mpiwg/online/permanent/library/VEGX9UKM/pageimg&mode=imagepath&start=221

    Cheers,
    Ali

  4. Museum Planner

    Just found your fantastic blog! Was scrolling through, the “Fiery dancers and a dragon, 1635 (Science Museum)” reminded me of one of my favorite objects the Ray and Charles Eames Solar Do Nothing Machine.

    -Mark

  5. fireworkknight

    A fascinating read. Keep up the good work in spreading the news about the magic of fireworks!

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