The Basics about Fireworks

“Remember, remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason, and plot. I see no reason why gunpowder treason Will ever be forgot”.

Only the English would celebrate a complete and utter failure in such style and with such passion as we do Guy Fawkes Night. Every year fireworks displays light up the night sky as we mark the unsuccessful attempt to blow up the unpopular King James 1st on 5th November 1605. Today there is a huge multi-million pound industry behind Bonfire Night ranging from event organisation to elaborate fireworks displays that include New Years Day celebrations and landmark sporting spectaculars such as the 2012 Olympics.

The story of Guy Fawkes has transferred into the public’s psyche so deeply that people know very little about the man and what drove him to commit high treason or the weapon he had planned to use, gunpowder. Gunpowder is an extremely simple mixture of three chemicals, sulphur, saltpetre and a source of carbon such as coal or charcoal. When mixed in the right quantities it has explosive potential. The Chinese were the first to discover this in the 7th Century and initially they used their discovery for peaceful purposes when the loud crack and the bright sparks were used to frighten away evil spirits and to pray for happiness and prosperity.  

Guy Fawkes led the conspiracy to kill the king of England and Scotland, the hated King James 1st. James 1st had instated the Protestant faith in England and had begun a persecution of Catholics amongst them Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators. 36 barrels of gunpowder were secretly placed in the cellars of Westminster Hall, then the seat of the Parliament of England. Unfortunately for Fawkes, he was arrested just before he had planned to set off the explosion and Parliament and King James 1st were saved. Fawkes himself was not so lucky being hung, drawn and quartered for this crime on 31 January 1606 with the four parts of his body being sent out to the four corners of the country to act as a deterrent to anyone else thinking of committing treason.

Each year on, or increasingly around, the 5th November  millions of pounds  worth of fireworks are sold over the counter, curiously in a country seemingly obsessed with health and safety regulations we continue to sell what have been used since the ancient Chinese as weapons of war. To put it into some kind of perspective each year in the United Kingdom alone we fire off more than the entire gunpowder stored in the magazines on board HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar on one night alone.

Fireworks are big business, but a dangerous one that is closely monitored and controlled. Manufacturers have to have stringent controls set in place by the United Kingdom’s Health and Safety Executive. These are strictly adhered to bringing with them financial considerations as well as security implications in a world dominated by terrorist threats. Gunpowder may not be Semtex or C3 but it is still a deadly weapon in the wrong hands. These restrictions mean extra overheads for gunpowder makers which are increasingly being undercut by cheap imports from aboard, particularly from the Far East and Asia, where safety and security issues are often overlooked with disastrous consequences.

Fireworks are far more complex than many realise with a potentially lethal cocktail of chemicals that must be handled with extreme care. Amongst the ingredients in most colourful fireworks are Phosphorous, Chlorine, Cesium, Sodium and Barium to name but a handful of the chemical components of the rockets.

That aside there is something special about fireworks displays and the world over people come to marvel at them, many tied in with national events and celebrations. In Japan, throughout the summer months, almost 200 events take place during a season of fireworks festivals, with the largest event at Tondabayashi, near Osaka, attracting more than 800,000 spectators watching between 100,000 and 120,000 rockets being fired into the night sky. In October at the start of the Indian ‘Festival of Lights’, fireworks are traditionally fired off and in the United States the best place to see a fireworks display is at Walt Disney World in Florida, who are the largest consumer of fireworks in the United States. Most countries allow some form of firework displays, usually under strict control, but many restrict personal use, such as the Republic of Ireland where fireworks are illegal and possession of them is punishable by a fine of 10,000 Euros and perhaps even a five year prison sentence.

This is in no small way due to the harm fireworks can do, in Northern Ireland alone 47 people were treated for a variety of injuries in the provinces hospitals over the Halloween period in 2010 (*1) with the most common injury being burns from hand held sparklers.

Fireworks displays are beautiful, wondrous and captivating lighting up a pitch black frosty nights’ sky with a myriad of colours and loud cracks, bangs, whistles and pops. In the United Kingdom we light up the sky perhaps twice a year, but we do it well when we remember, remember the 5th of November.

*1 Office of National Statistics