The First Fireworks Displays Were Terrifyingly Huge

If you are sick of all those safely precautions required to set off fireworks these days, then maybe you'd have been happier 500 years in the past. Those were the days when fireworks were truly awe-inspiring.

The word "firework" would seem to have been well-established by the sixteenth century in Europe. Stowe's Chronicles (1565) describes two foreigners in the employ of Henry VIII who:

caused to be made certain mortar pieces being at the mouth eleven inches unto nineteen inches wide, for the use whereof to be made certain hollow shot of cast-iron, to be stuffed with firework or wild-fire, whereof the bigger sort for the same had screws of iron to receive a match to carry fire kindled, that the firework might be set on fire for to break in pieces the same hollow shot, whereof the smallest piece hitting any man would kill or spoil him.

Shakespeare mentions fireworks three times: In Love's Labour's Lost, Act V, Scene i, Don Armado says, "The King would have me present the Princess with some delightful entertainment, or show, or pageant, or antic, or firework." In Henry VIII, Act I, Scene 3, we read of "fights and fireworks"; and again in King John, Act II, Scene i : "What cracker is this same that deafs our ears?" However, nothing in the nature of an actual firework display appears to have taken place, at least in England, before the time of Elizabeth.

The use of fire for theatrical purposes, as in mystery plays to represent the "gate of Hell," has been taken by some to refer to fireworks, but this seems doubtful as flames are mentioned, and it is more probable that a torch or similar contrivance was used. When, however, when we read a description of a barge at the coronation of Anne Boleyn, in 1538, carrying "a dragon casting forth wild fire, and men casting fire," the reference to some pyrotechnic effect, however primitive, seems fairly obvious.

The First Fireworks Displays Were Terrifyingly Huge

The men performing with the fireworks may be considered as early types of the "green man" who made his official appearance somewhat later. The job of this performer was to head processions carrying "fire clubs" and scattering "fireworks" to clear the way, although the reference to fireworks may have meant only sparks. One account or a procession to the Chester Races on St. George's Day, 1610, begins by describing "Two men in green ivy, set with work upon their other habit, with black hair and black beards, very ugly to behold, and garlands upon their heads, with great clubs in their hands, with fireworks to scatter abroad to maintain the way for the rest of the show." The fire clubs referred to are described in John Bate's book, published in 1635 and the same writer illustrates a "green man" on the title page of his work. His costume, although perhaps inspired by the wild men and satyrs of earlier exhibitions, was specifically designed to protect him from being burned.

The First Fireworks Displays Were Terrifyingly Huge

The 1606 firework exhibition celebrating the departure of the King of Denmark from England seems to have given his brother-in-law, James I, a taste for fireworks. At least of the Danish pyrotechnicians appears to have remained in England, since only a few months later, James witnessed a display designed by "a Dane, two Dutchmen, and Sir Thomas Challoner."

In 1572 a firework display was given in the Temple Fields, Warwick, by the Earl of Warwick, then Master-General of the Ordnance. The occasion was a visit to the castle by Queen Elizabeth, who appears to have been rather partial to such exhibitions. The display consisted of a mimic battle, with two canvas forts for a setting ; noise was provided by the discharge of ordnance of various sizes; the fireworks proper seem to have taken the form of flights of rockets. The display was evidently conducted in a somewhat reckless manner, some houses being set on fire and some completely destroyed, the two inhabitants of which are said in a contemporary report to have been in bed and asleep, although it is hard to imagine how they managed to do that with the continuous discharge of twenty pieces of ordnance, to say nothing of "qualivers and harquebuses," in the immediate vicinity.

Two other displays attended by Elizabeth were those at Kenilworth in 1572 and at Elvetham in 1591. In 1615, on the occasion of the marriage of Louis XIII,. a display was given at Paris in the Place Royale, in which were included combats between men carrying illuminated arms.

In 1606 the Due de Sully gave a spectacle which depicted a battle between savages and monsters, the former throwing darts and fire. A similar display had previously been given on the occasion of the entry of Henry II into Rheims, and it was repeated in 1612. These spectacles, although described as firework displays, cannot rightly be considered as such since the fireworks themselves played a comparatively secondary part in the exhibitions.

A display of this nature to celebrate the capture of Rochelle was conducted by Clariner of Nuremberg, a celebrated pyro­technist of the day.

During the reign of LouisXIV , 1638-1715, great advances were made in pyrotechny in France; great displays were given on the return of the King and Queen to Paris in 1660, on five consecutive days at Versailles in 1676, also on the occasion of the birth of the Dauphin in 1682, in Paris at the Louvre, Dijon, and Lyons.

The First Fireworks Displays Were Terrifyingly Huge

A particularly fine display in celebration of the Peace of Riswick, 1669 (for which event displays took place in several countries), is mentioned by Frezier, who wrote a treatise on pyrotechny (1747). It was witnessing this display that inspired him to study the art.

One of the chief causes of progress in France was the encouragement given by LouisXV (1710-1774) to Morel Torre and the Ruggieri brothers, the latter being Italians from Bologna who became naturalized French­men. They contributed greatly to the development of French pyrotechnics. They were the first to rely chiefly on fireworks for sheer effect, instead of using them merely to embellish a scenic or architectural structure.

The First Fireworks Displays Were Terrifyingly Huge

Louis XV expended large sums of money on displays, one of the finest being that fired at Versailles in 1739 by Ruggieri, on the occasion of the marriage of Madame La Premiere of France with Don Philippe of Spain. Writing of this display in 1821, Ruggieri's son said: "There appeared for the first time the Salamander la Rosace and le Guilloche, which are still admired today." These are purely pyrotechnic pieces and devices; similar or identical ones are used in the present day, which seems to indicate that fireworks proper were making headway against scenic effect.

Other displays in France during the eighteenth century were those celebrating the birth of the Duke of Brittany, 1704; birth of the Dauphin, 1730; the convalescence of the King, 1744 ; and the return of the King to Paris, 1745. Also there is in existence a series of prints which, but for the fact that they are described as fireworks, would be taken to be scenic tableaux; whether the figures are human beings or wax-works is not indicated. These were erected in celebration of the following events: The taking of Tournay, the taking of Chateau Grand, Victory over the Allies, all dated 1745; the taking of Ypres, 1747, all of which took place in Paris in front of the Hotel de Ville. Similar displays were given in Lyons in 1765 to celebrate the taking of Fort San Philippe, and at Soleure in 1777, in honor of the Swiss Guard. Displays took place at Versailles (1751) on the occasion of the birth of the Duke of Burgundy. In 1758-9 there were a series of celebrations in honor of the victory of Lutzelberg, over the English in America, and over the Allies at Bergheri, all of which appeared to be of the Atableau style that was even then going out of fashion.

The First Fireworks Displays Were Terrifyingly Huge

The first European people to make headway in the art of pyrotechny proper appear to have been the Italians. In the book of Artillery by Diego Ufano, written in 1610, he reports that while only very simple fireworks were made in his time in Spain and Flanders, consisting merely of wooden frameworks supporting pots of fire wrapped round with cloth dipped in pitch, more than fifty years earlier magnificent spectacles could be seen in Italy. Vanochio, an Italian, in a work on artillery, dated 1572, attributes to the Florentines and Viennese the honor of being the first to make fireworks on erections of wood, decorated with statues and pictures raised to a great height, some in Florence being seventy-two feet high. He adds that these were illuminated so that they might be seen from a distance, and that the statues threw fire from their mouths and eyes.

He refers to the practice, which survived up to the end of the eighteenth century, of constructing elaborate, richly decorated temples or palaces, with transparencies illuminated from inside, statuary, gilding, floral and other decorations. On these erections the fireworks proper were displayed, and which were then called artificial fireworks. Nothing very large in the way of firework set-pieces seems to have been attempted, effects instead being accomplished by the repetition of small fireworks set over the façade of the building.

The First Fireworks Displays Were Terrifyingly Huge

Displays were given annually in Florence at the Feast of St. John and the Assumption. This custom extended to Rome, "where the festivals were given on the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, and at the rejoicings on the election of a Pope." The towers and fortifications of the castle of St. Angelo furnished suitable spots for these latter, being visible from the greater part of the city of Rome. Fireworks would be placed there, to avoid the expense of a specially constructed building.

In other towns that wished to imitate the festival of Rome, it was arranged to place illuminations on the highest towers and steeples of the towns, but once it was found that there was considerable danger of fire from these, it was afterwards preferred to make suitable erections in the great public squares, which were convenient for the exhibition itself, and also for the sightseers.

The First Fireworks Displays Were Terrifyingly Huge

The Italians appear to have held the supremacy until the end of the seventeenth century.. During the Renaissance in Europe (1400-1500), the Italians developed pyrotechnics into an elaborate art form. Along with the outburst of creativity in painting and sculpture, pyrotechnists perfected their art, developing new fireworks and compositions. Among the innovations were aerial shells, which

The fireworks spectacles staged by the French monarchy enabled it to judge the political temperature of the nation, while at the same time providing its subjects with an unmatched entertainment and feeling of goodwill. Henry IV (1553-1610) began the tradition of a monarch starting public fireworks with a hand-held torch, a tradition carried on by Louis XIII (1601-1643) and for a short while by Louis XIV (1638-1715), who eventually took the wiser and safer course of delegating the honor to a lesser prince.

The First Fireworks Displays Were Terrifyingly Huge

The fireworks displays themselves were created by royal engineers or the engineers employed by the cities themselves. Surprisingly, these engineers were accorded a free hand in their creations. They were not restricted by political, religious nor moral pressures. They were interested in spectacle and drew upon contemporary events for their inspiration. The sole exception to this was mythology, which provided a vastly rich mine for the pyrotechnician's imagination.

This freedom from outside influence began to ebb at the time of the birth of Louis XIV in 1638. To celebrate, pyrotechnician Thomas Caresme erected a vast allegorical sculpture on the river Seine. A rock was constructed on top of a high scaffolding and above this a rising sun—symbolizing the new-born king. On the four sides of the structure stood allegorical figures representing Peace, Science, Harmony and Abundance. From that time, royal pyrotechnicians became ever more influenced by individual artists, poets, authors and sculptors, with the result that fireworks displays became ever more theatrical. They also increasingly took on the political concerns of royalty. From that moment, according to fireworks historian Émile Magne, "fireworks displays, formerly so diversified in their form, tend to take on the definite image of a monument, a temple, an arch of triumph...No more romanticism, chimerical adventures, unexpected scenes."

The First Fireworks Displays Were Terrifyingly Huge

In spite of this, the fireworks displays themselves were often no less awe-inspiring than ever. Two of the most spectacular celebrated the triumphant return of Louis XIV to Paris in 1660 and the birth of the dauphin in 1682. Louis XV (1710-1774) enthusiastically kept the tradition alive by importing talents such as the Ruggieri brothers and Morel Torré. The Ruggieris were among the first pyrotechnicians to rely on the fireworks themselves for their effects rather than using them to embellish a sculpture or structure of some sort. One of their greatest accomplishments was at Versailles in 1739 to celebrate the marriage of Madame la Première of France and Don Filipe of Spain. The capture of Château Grand in 1745 and Ypres in 1747 provided themes for fabulous displays at Paris-Hôtel de Ville.

The First Fireworks Displays Were Terrifyingly Huge

The city of Strasbourg welcomed Louis XV with an impressive fireworks show on October 5, 1744.Officers and men of the infantry and cavalry were elaborately dressed for the occasion. conducted one of their greatest displays at Versailles in 1739 to celebrate the marriage of Madame la Premiere of France and Don Filipe of Spain. The capture of Chateau Grand in 1745 and Ypres in 1747 gave rise to other splendid displays before the Hotel de Ville in Paris.The city of Strasbourg gave a particularly impressive welcome to Louis XV on October 5, 1744. Infantry and cavalry were called up, their officers and men ornately dressed for the oc­casion and provided with splendid banners and flags. At four o'clock in the afternoon a great cry erupted as the king=s carriage approached the Saverne gate. The royal entourage passed into Saverne and through a magnificent Co­rinthian-style arch of triumph flanked by Swiss guards. Along the sides of the arch stood a great statue of the king, with angels supporting the shields of the arms of France and of Navarre. The king made his way along graveled streets decorated with gorgeous tapestries to the episcopal palace of Rohan. According to a contemporary account, he was attended by twenty-four girls from fifteen to twenty years old "dressed in superb clothes cut according to the customs of the German residents of Strasbourg [and another] twenty-four girls dressed in accordance with French traditions." Gabriel Mourey in Liure des Fetes Francoises describes Louis' view from the balcony of his apartments as the event of the day—the spectacular fireworks display—unfolded.

In front of the Rohan Palace, along the bank of the river Ill, a great forty- to fifty-foot-high, hundred-foot broad edifice had been constructed. It was an arch of triumph with seven arcades plus a larger central one that enclosed a statue showing the king arriving in Alsace on horseback. The words Cum Domino Pax Ista Venit were inscribed thereon, together with an in­scription above it reading Nee Pluribus Impar and the rays of the sun.

The First Fireworks Displays Were Terrifyingly Huge

A contemporary description has it that "the sun, the royal arms, various heraldic inscriptions, pyramids, and the fleurs-de-lys on the arch ... suddenly [at nine o=clock at night] took flame, giving rise to a lively and brilliant display whose colors changed three times." Clouds of rockets flew into the air and other sorts of pyrotechnic devices went into action. Some were serpentine in shape and, after falling into the water and remain­ing there for some time, "suddenly came out, covered the surface of the river, and then dissipated into a thousand bursts." The fireworks lasted for three quarters of an hour, during which two orchestras played aboard illuminated and garlanded boats an­chored in the river Ill. For days the feasts and celebrations continued, the public consuming vast quantities of roast beef, "all sorts of other meats and poultry, a profusion of bread, and copious quantities of wine." On the tenth day, Louis XV departed Strasbourg to the same ceremonies as those that had welcomed his arrival.

Although the Italians and French dominated the fireworks scene for several centuries, they had no claim for exclusivity in Europe. The Germans often shot off fireworks, one of their best-recorded displays occurring on July 8, 1667, at Pleissenburg at the behest of the Prince of Saxony. A couple of years later in Stockholm another impressive display took place on the occasion of Charles XI of Sweden's investiture with the British Order of the Garter. In England, fireworks became popular early in the seventeenth century. Shortly after the marriage in 1613 of James 1's daughter to Prince Frederick the Elector Palatine, a long ac­count of the fireworks event marking the occasion was prepared, entitled "The Manner of Fire-Workes Shew up upon the Thames." It read, in part:

First, for a welcome to the beholders a peale of Ordnance like unto a terrible thunder ratled in the ayre... Secondly, fol­lowed a number more of the same fashion, spredding so strangly with sparkling blazes, that the skie seemed to be filled with fire... . After this, in a most curious manner, an artificiall fire-worke with great wonder was seen flying in the ayre, like unto a fiery Dragon, against which another fierrie vision appeared flaming like to Saint George on Horsebacke, brought in by a burning Inchanter, between which was then fought a most strange battell continuing a quarter of an howre or more; the Dragon being vanquished, seemed to roar like thunder, and withall burst in pieces, and so vanished; but the champion, with his flaming horse, for a little time made ashew of a tryumphant conquest, and so ceased.

After this was heard another rattling sound of Cannons ... and forthwith appeared, out of a hill of earth made upon the water, a very strange fire, flaming upright like unto a blazing starre. After which flew forth a number of rockets so high in the ayre, that we could not chose but approve by all reasons that Arte hath exceeded Nature, so artificially were they per­formed. And still ... the fire-workes danced in the ayre, to the great delight of his Highnes and the Princes ... These were the noble delights of Princes, and prompt were the wits of men to contrive such princely pleasures.

The popularity of fireworks continued. The caption on one eighteenth-century print stated that during one evening a thou­sand skyrockets were used up, ranging from four to six pounds in weight, together with twenty-three rocket chests "each contain­ing sixty rockets from one to four pounders." The cost of these plus such other items as light balls, shells, and Roman candles was 12,000 pounds.

The First Fireworks Displays Were Terrifyingly Huge

The practice of celebrating special events and occasions with fireworks, widespread though it was, did not go unchallenged. Charles Lamb, for instance, in the nineteenth century, was dis­mayed at the damage done to Hyde and Green parks in London as a result of pyrotechnical displays and the jostling and milling about of the enthralled crowds. Yet he admitted in a letter he wrote to William Wordsworth on August 9, 1814 that...

After all the fireworks were splendent—the Rockets in cluster, in trees and all shapes, spreading about like young stars in the making floundering about in space ... till some of Newton's calculations should fix them, but then they went out. Anyone who could see them and the still finer showers of gloomy rain , fire that fell sulkily and angrily from them could go to bed without dreaming of the Last Day, must be as hardened an Atheist as * * * *

The First Fireworks Displays Were Terrifyingly Huge

The First Fireworks Displays Were Terrifyingly Huge

To a reporter for The Times, "the repetition of these things, with occasional pauses, for more than two hours became tedious to all." He was a distinct minority.Despite a few grumblings, fireworks drew large crowds throughout most of the nineteenth century. C. T. Brock inaugu­rated a series of impressive displays at Crystal Palace in 1865, which were so successful that he soon built extensive manu­facturing facilities at Nunhead in the London area. There, he began producing rockets and other pyrotechnic devices "on a scale never previously dreamt of in the trade." His brother Arthur took over the family business in 1881 and continued to hold firework displays at the palace until 1910.

The First Fireworks Displays Were Terrifyingly Huge

Inevitably, European firework technology spread to the New World. Captain John Smith, governor of the New England col­onies, records in his The Generall Historic of Virginia, New-England that on the evening of July 24, 1608, "... we fired a few rockets, which flying in the ayre so terrified the poore Sal­vages [the Indians], that they supposed nothing unpossible we attempted; and desired to assist us." These firework rockets were brought from England, but beginning in the eighteenth century a native pyrotechnic industry took hold in the new country.

The First Fireworks Displays Were Terrifyingly Huge

Scintillating, enthralling, and stimulating though fireworks were, they did not engender sustained development programs to improve the flight performance of rockets. Remarkably few changes occurred in manufacturing and launching practices until the nineteenth century. Preparations for war ultimately proved to be a greater incentive than preparations for festive celebrations.

The First Fireworks Displays Were Terrifyingly Huge