Ask the Past: Firework display

I love fireworks displays, but I always find the boxes of fireworks that you can buy around Guy Fawkes kind of underwhelming. What's the best way to make the most of fireworks at home?

There are lots of things you can do to make your home fireworks more spectacular. To begin with, rather than just holding the fireworks in your hands and shooting them off the edges of cliffs, consider a proper programme. Harmsworth's Household Encyclopedia suggests the following:

Signal maroon, announcing the commencement of the display

Flight of rockets, fired singly in rapid succession

Signal maroon

Illumination of the surroundings by lights of changing colours

Salvo of rockets or shell

Golden fountains or jewelled jets

Salvo of rockets or shell

Wheel or revolving sun


Battery of Roman candles

Lancework device

Salvo of rockets or shell

Revolving fountain

Battery of Roman candles

Niagara of fire

Final device - "GOOD NIGHT."

Some of these might sound quite elaborate, but if you aren't worried about the idea of attaching fireworks to wood frames and then setting them alight, Harmsworth includes these helpful illustrations.

A hexagonal wooden frame with fireworks at each corner, with three more fireworks mounted near the centre. The outer fireworks are all angled in a clockwise direction, and presumably the force of the fireworks spins the wheel, provided it doesn't just make the whole thing catch fire.
This wooden wheel made of fireworks and lighting cord seems very safe
An illustration of a Niagara of fire, which it turns out is just ten fireworks attached to a board, with one long lighter to light them all at once. The caption says that the whole thing "should be fixed high to give the most effective result".
Very safe indeed.

Harmsworth's recommends buying your fireworks for best results, but other books are happy for you to go ahead and create explosives at home. The Chemical Formulary Vol. 3 includes a chapter on pyrotechnics, and in case you're having problems locating gerbs to build your revolving sun or Niagara of fire, they offer this formula:

Meal Powder, 6lb; Saltpeter, 2lb; Sulphur, 1lb; Charcoal, 1lb; Steel Filings, 1lb

(Meal powder, incidentally, is very fine black powder.)

Unfortunately, they don't give much advice about how to make these fireworks specifically, but the chapter introduction includes the following:

In plain mixings the coal is weighed first and put into bottom of a wooden tub; the sieve is put on top and the sulphur and saltpeter sifted through it. Then with bare arms mix the powder in the tub thoroughly. Place sieve on another tub and sift from first tub a scoopful at a time. Mix with hands again and sift back again into first tub.

Just a reminder to consider fire safety and keep an extinguisher on hand. Once again, Harmsworth's has you covered:

An economical fire extinguisher can be made at small expense by taking a number of strong glass bottles and filling them with a solution of sal ammoniac and salt, in the proportions of 1 part of sal ammoniac to 2 parts of salt dissolved in about 3 gallons of water. The bottles are filled with the solution, tightly corked, and then sealed with wax to prevent evaporation of the contents. They are used by hurling them into the heart of the fire, or by knocking the necks off and pouring the contents on the fire.

I'm sure that will help.

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