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Lunch Hour Lectures: Bright Sparks – the history and science of fireworks

By Kilian Thayaparan, on 3 November 2014

FireworksWith 5 November just around the corner, this Lunch Hour Lecture on how fireworks have helped to develop a relationship between science and art from Dr Simon Werrett (UCL Science and Technology Studies) made the perfect prelude to the annual lighting up of the UK’s skies.

Dr Werrett began by talking about his interest in fireworks, explaining to the sizeable audience (which he was pleasantly surprised with considering the “freakishly warm weather” for this time of year) that their incorporation of and connection with the seemingly conflicting fields of art and science has always fascinated him.

He then guided the audience through the history of fireworks, starting with their Chinese origins. Dry bamboo with gunpowder inside is recognised as the first type of firework, the ‘big bang’ used to ward off “mountain men of evil spirits”. In the 12th century, this technique and others like it were then used to create firework displays for Chinese emperors.

The Mongol invasion of Asia followed by central Europe brought firecrackers and gunpowder technology to this continent in the 13th century, and by the late 15th century firework displays were relatively common. One key example is the Girandola in Rome – a display that celebrated the election of a new Pope, the apocalyptic nature of the display symbolising death and rebirth.

During the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries was also when significant connections between the science and art of fireworks began to be made; types of fireworks were categorised in terms of Aristotle’s four elements – earth, water air and fire – and the ‘living thing-like movements’ of fireworks were noted and appreciated.

As the popularity of fireworks grew, so did the effort that went into producing bigger and better displays, particularly for celebrating royalty and promoting national pride; artificial temples/buildings called ‘machines’ were used as launch stations and ‘artificers’ (firework ‘artists’) were employed to design and coordinate elaborate displays.

The popularity of fireworks during this time coincided with a scientific revolution, and this resulted in further crossover between the fields of science and art. Natural philosophers, aware of the popularity of artificers, began to see the benefits of incorporating fireworks into their ideas – many used fireworks to highlight their theories and make them more credible.

Dr Werrett provided some examples that perfectly demonstrate this: firstly the Gunpowder Theory, in which the chemistry behind fireworks was used to explain natural phenomena like thunder and lightning, stars and volcanoes. Also, the explosive feature of fireworks was used to explain how muscular twitches and spasms occur in the body.

Having been applied to chemistry and biology, in the 18th century fireworks were also referred to in physics, specifically within theories of electricity; igniting a spoonful of alcohol with a spark was shown to create a ‘liquid fire’, leading to a theory on ‘electric fire’, and many images of electricity created by scientists were reminiscent of exploding fireworks.

“Art and science have both borrowed from each other and this has led to many great and fruitful things – this should be carried on”, he went on to conclude. Indeed, not only did Dr Werrett’s lecture clearly demonstrate the benefits of this particular unique relationship, but it also highlighted the great potential of cross-disciplinary approaches to research and study.

You can catch up on past Lunch Hour Lectures on the dedicated YouTube channel. Details of other Lunch Hour Lectures taking place this term are available on the UCL Events calendar.

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