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Alchemy Fireworks

blog - sharing magic

Funk Soul Brother!

We were delighted to be a part of the Summer Soulstice festival’s 10th anniversary this year. Choreographed to a bespoke mix of music provided by the client the 4500 strong crowd were treated to a closely choreographed display featuring tracks from The Jacksons and Prince.

History repeating……

In Britain, we associate fireworks with Bonfire Night, in France they’re used to celebrate Bastille Day and we all know how much Americans love fireworks to celebrate every occasion, but have you ever wondered how the first firework was created? We all enjoy a good fireworks display; it’s one of the few things in today’s modern world that still has the power to bring us together as a community. Despite most of us thinking that fireworks were invented to celebrate Bonfire Night, their history goes back thousands of years and is far more exciting than you can imagine!

A happy accident

The first mention of a firework comes from China, about 2000 years ago. There’s a legend that a Chinese chef accidentally knocked some saltpetre into a cooking fire, which caused an interesting flame not seen anywhere else, and in an act of pure serendipity, invented the firework. Saltpetre was used as a flavouring salt and is still an ingredient in gun powder. Along with saltpetre, other gunpowder ingredients, such as sulphur and charcoal were commonly found around ancient cooking fires. This mixture of ingredients produced an extremely beautiful flame in a fire and would explode if placed into a bamboo tube.

Between 960 and 1279, in the Song Dynasty in China, exploding firecrackers were produced by Li Tian, a Chinese monk, near the city of Liu Yang in the Hunan Province. They were designed to be detonated at the beginning of the New Year in order to scare away evil spirits, and were made by filling bamboo shoots with gunpowder.

Nowadays we focus on the shapes and colours of being the most important part of a firework, but in medieval China, they focused on the loud noise for early religious fireworks (known as ‘bian pow’ or ‘gung pow’), as this was essential for scaring away the evil spirits.

By the time of the 15th century, fireworks are recorded being used in a wide range of celebrations, including weddings and military victories. Whilst we see the birth of the firework in China, the modern firework that’s we recognise was most likely invented in India or the Middle East.

Gunpowder

Gunpowder, also known as black powder, is one of the most important discoveries in human history, changing everything from war to infrastructure. Whilst it can be used as an explosive, it’s far more commonly used as a propellant. Since the 9th Century it was made by mixing saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal; the charcoal often came from the willow tree, but a number of other woods have been used, including:

  • Pine cones
  • Elder
  • Grapevine
  • Laurel
  • Hazel

More recently, sugar has been used as an alternative to charcoal to act as the fuel component in fireworks and other pyrotechnics.

When these ingredients are carefully ground together, a powder called ‘serpentine’ is created. Due to these ingredients needing to be mixed before they’re used, gunpowder was extremely dangerous to make without modern safety measures.

Chinese arrows

As well as using gunpowder as an explosive in their firecrackers, the Chinese utilised gunpowder combustion as a propellant. In 1279, the Chinese used hand-carved wooden rockets, in the shape of dragons, to shoot rocket powered arrows at the Mongol invaders.

Explorers of the time took their knowledge of gunpowder and rocket powered arrows back home with them, with records in the Middle East talking of Chinese arrows as far back as the 7th century.

Along with the crusaders, Marco Polo is widely credited with bringing gunpowder (and fireworks) to Europe in the 13th century.

Fireworks in Europe

By 1377, fireworks we being used in the bishop’s palace at Vicenza to accompany a religious mystery play. Soon, fireworks were regularly used in the representation of angels or the Holy Spirit, as a way to demonstrate them ascending to Heaven or descending to earth.

A couple of centuries later, the popularity of fireworks had increased exponentially and they were commonly used for both military purposes and in peacetime. Spain and Italy in particular started using firework displays as part of numerous outdoor celebrations. Vannoccio Biringuccio, an Italian metallurgist described the festivities in Florence and Siena for feast days as including whirling, decorated wheels that had been packed with fireworks suspended from ropes as entertainment.

A cause for celebration

Over time, fireworks were used more often to celebrate great events. From the late part of the 15th century (and even to this day), fireworks at Italy’s Castel Sant’Angelo have been used to celebrate the election of a new pope. Descriptions of the fireworks in the late 15th century stated that the finale of rocket fireworks “Constructed so that after they have moved upwards with a long tail and seem to be finished they burst and each one sends forth anew six or eight rockets”. It was definitely a world changing experience for those who saw it, with the fireworks being compared to the fires of hell or the heavens coming down to earth.

Moving into the 16th century, fireworks were being used for festivals throughout northern Europe with a large variety in the styles of firework display. They were mainly spectacles designed for the nobility and royalty, celebrating their actions and adventure, using elaborate scenery with monsters, castles and a wide range of pyrotechnics.

The coronation of Anne Boleyn in 1533 was celebrated with a “great red dragon continually moving and casting forth fire” and a host of “wild men” on barges in the Thames, wielding fire-clubs. Her daughter, Elizabeth I greatly enjoyed firework displays throughout her reign.

In Germany, fireworks were used to create pyrotechnic pantomimes, with giant dragons and fire-spouting whales engaged in mock battles. In France, however, they enjoyed fireworks that resembled stars and the sun, lions to represent the constellation Leo and many other astrological inspired displays.

These magnificent firework displays could cost a fortune to create and were a source of both marvel and terror- for many people firework displays remained a novel experience.

Modern firework displays

The 1800s saw an end to the kind of courtly politics and extravagant displays due to more of a focus on economising pyrotechnic displays, leading to simple displays of coloured light in the 20th century. Today, however, we see fireworks fairly regularly often, so it takes a lot to impress us. Fireworks set to music, designed to create letters, numbers and shapes, as well as lancework and firerope.

At Alchemy Fireworks, our experienced team of pyrotechnic technicians will work with you to ensure you have everything you need for an exceptional firework display. To find out how Alchemy Fireworks can take your display into the next age, call us today on +44 (0)8000 66 58 37 or contact us online.

The Chemistry of How Fireworks Get Their Colour

Fireworks bursting over Christchurch Park in Ipswich as part of a professional display

A traditional part of celebrations around the world, very few things beat an innovative and magnificent fireworks display. Creating fireworks with distinct and bright colours needed for an impressive display relies on precise chemistry and a great application of scientific principles. The points of light projected from fireworks, often known as stars; usually require fuel, a binder to keep everything in the correct place and an oxygen-producer, along with the colour producer to determine the look of the firework.

There are two main ways to produce colour in fireworks, luminescence and incandescence.

Luminescence
Luminescence is light produced through energy sources other than heat, and is sometimes known as ‘cold light’. This is due to luminescence’s ability to occur at room temperature or even cooler temperatures.

Luminescence is produced through energy being absorbed by an electron of a molecule or atom, causing it to be unstable and excited. This energy is released when the electron returns to a lower energy state, releasing in the form of a photon, or light. It’s this photon that determines the colour or wavelength of a firework.

The salts used in the production of luminescent fireworks can be unstable. For example, barium chloride, used in the production of green fireworks, is unstable at room temperature and must be combined with more stable compounds such as chlorinated rubber.

Copper chloride, responsible for blue fireworks, is unstable at higher temperatures, meaning that a blue firework cannot get too hot, despite needing to be bright enough to be seen.

Incandescence
Incandescence refers to light produced from heat. It works by causing a substance to become hot and eventually glow. Initially emitting infra-red light, incandescence soon emits red, orange, yellow and ultimately white light as the temperature increases.

By controlling the temperature of a firework, it’s possible to manipulate the glow of the components to produce the desired colour at the right time. Various metals are useful for creating brightly burning fireworks as they increase the temperature of the firework, such as aluminium, magnesium and titanium.

The quality of firework colours
In order to produce pure colours, at Alchemy Fireworks, we use pure ingredients. Different colours can be overpowered or altered by trace amounts of sodium impurities, resulting in a yellow-orange colour.

We also carefully formulate our fireworks so that the colour of the firework isn’t masked by too much residue or smoke, ensuring a bright and colourful display.

 

Fireworks bursting over Christchurch Park in Ipswich as part of a professional display

The elements used in creating firework colours:

Aluminium

A common component of sparklers, aluminium is used to produce white and silver sparks and flames.

Antimony

Antimony is often used to create glitter effects for fireworks.

Barium

Barium is involved in the production of green fireworks and can stabilise some other volatile elements involved in fireworks production.

Calcium

Calcium is regularly used to deepen a variety of different firework colours. Calcium salts are also used to create orange fireworks.

Copper

Copper compounds are often used due to their ability to produce blue colours in fireworks.

Lithium

Lithium is responsible for producing red colours in fireworks. One of the most common fireworks colourants is lithium carbonate.

Magnesium

Magnesium is used to improve the brilliance of a firework or to add white sparks, due to it burning a very bright white.

Phosphorous

As well as potentially being a component in the fuel of a firework, phosphorous burns instantly in the air and is used for some glow-in-the-dark effects.

Sodium

Sodium is used for giving a bright gold or yellow colour to fireworks; however the brightness of the burn can easily overshadow other colours.

Strontium

Like lithium, strontium is used to produce red colours in fireworks. It’s also important in stabilising a variety of more volatile firework mixtures.

Titanium

Burnt as either powder or flakes, titanium metal is used to produce silver sparks.

 

Fireworks display for Madonna's birthday

Why not try creating different coloured flames yourself?

If you want to experience how different chemicals react to heat and create different colours, you can easily make a small campfire and sprinkle chemicals over it.

Not only can you buy specially produced packets of chemicals for colouring flames, you can quite easily make them yourself. If you’re going to cook food on your fire, it’s advisable to do this before you add the chemicals to reduce the risk of contamination. The following chemicals aren’t very toxic, producing no dangerous smoke or harm to the surrounding area.

For white flames, use magnesium sulphate, commonly found in Epsom salt. Yellow flames can be produced from sodium chloride, also known as table salt. If you want to create green flames, use borax- a common ingredient in cockroach powder or the disinfectant, boric acid powder. You can also create green flames through using copper sulphate, or algae treatment.

Copper chloride can be used to create blue flames, and purple flames can be produced through the use of potassium chloride or a salt substitute. If you’d prefer pink flames, lithium chloride or lithium from a battery will work.

Whilst fires tend to be red and orange in colour naturally, to create red flames, you can find strontium nitrate and strontium chloride in emergency road flares. Orange flames can be made incredibly easily using iron oxide, or rust.

A lot of these chemicals can be bought at a supermarket, and the ones you can’t find there are easily available online. You may wish to avoid using sodium chloride for yellow flame. Not only do flames appear yellow, the sodium chloride can easily overpower any other colours you’re trying to make.

AlchemyFireworks-HCP-004

At Alchemy Fireworks, we regularly undertake fireworks displays to meet every budget, size, shape and brief. From corporate celebrations to large public Bonfire Night displays, the team at Alchemy Fireworks ensure that your event brings the fun and excitement you want, to your event.

If you’re not sure what you want from your fireworks display, our experienced and professional team are on hand to take you through our winning formula for designing a unique display to amaze and thrill your guests.

Call us now on +44 (0)8000 66 58 37 to discuss your firework display plan and see how we can make your dream a reality.

Rain NEVER stops play!

It may have been wet, wet, wet this weekend but thanks to our expert waterproofing which happens back at Alchemy Fireworks HQ the fireworks stay nice and dry right up until the moment they’re fired. Our displays are pre-waterproofed so the fireworks arrive on site ready for whatever the worst of the British weather can throw at them. And often that means hours, sometimes days, of rain. We invest in good quality waterproofing material ensuring that even in continuous torrential downpours you can rest assured that the show will still go on!

Stormy fireworks

Fireworks rigged and the weather looking gloomy!

The Man Behind the Myth: Everything You Should Know About Guy Fawkes

“Remember, Remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.”

Born in 1570 in the city of York, Guy Fawkes has been immortalised for his role in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. Even today, Guy Fawkes is a prominent feature of any Bonfire Night celebration. So who was Guy Fawkes and what are the facts behind this enduring Bonfire Night myth?

Guy Fawkes’ family
Guy Fawkes’ immediate family were all Protestant, although his maternal grandparents were ‘recusant’ Catholics, refusing to attend Protestant church services. When he was eight, his father died before his mother remarried a Catholic man called Dionis Baynbrigge.
The influence of his grandparents and Dionis would help to cement Guy Fawkes’ fanatical Catholic faith in later years.

Guy Fawkes’ time in Spain
Guy Fawkes was 21 when he sold the estate left to him by his late father to go to Europe and fight for Catholic Spain in the Eighty Years War against the Protestant Dutch republic. He flourished in the military atmosphere and by 1603m he was recommended for a captaincy.
It was also around this time he started to use the Italian variant of his name, ‘Guido’.

Later in 1603, Guy Fawkes’ went to petition the Spanish Philip III to support a rebellion in England against the Protestant James I. Philip refused, even though Spain was technically at war with England at the time.

Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot
Whilst fighting for Spain in Flanders, Guy Fawkes met Thomas Wintour, who invited Fawkes to join the Gunpowder Plot under the leadership of Robert Catesby.
Due to Guy’s experience with gunpowder, he was given the essential, but highly dangerous role of sourcing and igniting the explosive.

But eighteen months of meticulous planning was ultimate for nothing, when he was found with just hours to go, amongst barrels of gunpowder and arrested. The thirty-six barrels of gunpowder had been placed directly under the House of Lords where the king would sit for opening the House of Lords the next day.
James I’s spymaster, Robert Cecil, had brilliantly engineered the foiling of the gunpowder plot. Torture was technically illegal at the time, but the king personally gave out a licence for Fawkes to be tortured, including the rack.
Whilst the threat alone of torture was usually enough to gain answers, Guy Fawkes endured two full days before he confessed anything. His famous signature on his confession shows that he was barely able to hold a quill by the end of his ordeal.
James I was impressed with Guy Fawkes high level of fortitude throughout his arrest and torture, admiring his “Roman resolution”.

Hung, drawn and quartered
Guy Fawkes was sentenced to the traditional traitors’ death of being hung, drawn and quartered on the 31st January 1606.
To avoid being drawn (dragged) and quartered, he jumped as he was hung, breaking his own neck. Parts of his body were still quartered and sent to the four corners of England as a warning to other would-be traitors.
Fawkes was 35 when he died at Westminster.

The legacy of Guy Fawkes
Instantly, Guy Fawkes became a national ‘bogeyman’ and was seen as the embodiment of Catholic extremism. He served as a pretext for the additional repression of Catholics, measured that would persist for another 200 years.

Whilst the charismatic Robert Catesby was the ringleader of the gunpowder plot, it isn’t surprising that we mainly remember Fawkes.
Catesby was killed evading capture and was never tried, whereas Fawkes was the man to get caught red-handed under the Houses of Parliament, resolved not to speak under torture and was publicly executed.

Bonfire Night, Fireworks and The Guy
The first 5th of November bonfires began the same year as the Gunpowder Plot itself. After Guy Fawkes was arrested in the early hours between the 4th and 5th November, joyful Londoners began lighting fires for their king’s safety on the night of the 5th. As the years went on, the traditions of Bonfire Night became increasingly elaborate.
Beautiful and complex fireworks displays were added, along with burning effigies of Guy Fawkes (and sometime the Pope) on the bonfires. Even today, some bonfire celebrations will throw an effigy of Guy Fawkes, the Pope and even current politicians as a quirky celebration, rather than being a sign of hostility against Catholic Church.

Penny for the Guy?
Making a dummy or effigy of Guy Fawkes, known as the Guy, is an integral part of celebrating Bonfire Night. Children still sometimes walk through the streets with the effigy, asking for ‘a penny for the Guy’. This money was traditionally used to buy fireworks for the night’s festivities.

Bonfire Night in Britain add Beyond
Not only is Bonfire Night celebrated in Britain, it’s celebrated in other parts of the world. During the time of the British Empire, it quickly found popularity in a number of colonies. New England in the United States celebrated it as Pope Day well into the 18th century. Newfoundland in Canada and New Zealand still light bonfires on the 5th November, along with their British counterparts.

If you’re looking to host a Bonfire Night to be remembered, contact us now to start organising your fireworks display, lancework and firerope and even lighting and lasers, or call 0800 0665 837.

It’s not all fireworks!

In amongst the few displays that happen at this time of year we’re always busy beavering away at little projects that get side-lined when we’re busier. It’s at this time of year that orders get placed with suppliers (and we’ve got some amazing new firework effects already lined up for this year!), we maintain and build new hardware for use in fireworks displays, carry out a stock take and a good tidy up of our stores. This week we’re taking delivery of our new van and waving goodbye to our old stalwart of a van that’s been with us for 6 years. We’ve also just today had 4 bookings for summer displays so we’re far from quiet! A few of us head out to Valencia next week for a bit of a jolly (sometimes it’s nice to just watch fireworks displays and not be working on them!). Each year they have a huge fireworks festival with both daytime and night-time displays. If you’re a fireworks fan and have never been – GO! You will not be disappointed. Wi-Fi permitting we’ll send some reports back from there between displays, siestas and beer!

Display design – a personal view

12417627_960401584054569_2311552874435462471_nFirework displays are an art form. Like any painting, piece of music or theatre they’re subjective. One man’s meat is another man’s poison so the saying goes! I’ll often watch displays these days and many are truly technically brilliant. The single shots will hit the beats of the music and the shells will all burst on the crescendos. But both software and hardware advances make it easy to achieve that. Now, I don’t know about you but for me those types of shows come across as very robotic. Sure, it’s great to witness and the audience now expects to see that but when it happens all the way through a display and in every sequence I do feel that the display loses any passion as it seemingly goes through the motions. What I think many displays seem to lack at the moment is an element of feeling. That kind of leads me on to fireworks competitions. I recently saw this somewhere online and it kind of rang true for me – at the moment at least!

Happy Chinese New Year

Today is Chinese New Year and it’s the year of the Monkey. We’d like to wish all our Chinese friends and colleagues around the world a very happy New Year! Fireworks are used to drive away the evil in China. Right after 12:00PM on New Year’s Eve, fireworks will be launched to celebrate the coming of the New Year as well as to drive away the evil. It is believed that the person who launched the first firework of the New Year will obtain good luck. Daylight fireworks are usually very noisy and feature coloured smoke and noise effects. Check out this amazing daytime fireworks show! The colours of the smoke and the noise are just incredible to watch. At one point it looks like a field of tulips. Check out our own (somewhat smaller!) daylight fireworks show for Middlesbrough Mela here.