Fireworks: The Power of Pyrotechnics

Though they originated in China, it was in the capitals of early modern Europe that fireworks flourished. They united art and science in awesome displays of poltical might, as Simon Werrett explains.

An etching of the Royal Fireworks display on the Thames, London, England in 1749.According to René Descartes’s biographer Adrien Baillet (1649-1706) it should be the business of the gentleman philosopher to attend court spectacles, to know what princes ‘do represent of most pompous and glorious upon the Theatre of the Universe’. One of the things Descartes and his scholarly friends would have seen were the new ‘artificial fireworks’ that graced many court festivals of the age, as gunners fired off thousands of rockets, bombs and fiery stars over lakes and rivers, or from brightly painted ephemeral castles and classical temples. Displays filled audiences with a mixture of wonder and terror.

The history of fireworks reveals the range of relationships which existed between artisans and scientists (or natural philosophers as they were known before the 1830s). Historians of science have long recognised how artisanal skills were combined with scholastic natural philosophy in the 16th and 17th centuries to create new sciences such as the mechanical and experimental philosophies. The artisans’ practical goals, empirical knowledge and vernacular language all helped to forge the scientific revolution.

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