Images from Brock’s Pyrotechnics: The History and Art of Fireworks Making — 1922

💥Pyrotechnics and Digital Spectacle 💥

When I was a kid, a lot of my dad’s stories of his youth revolved around mischief he got up to with fireworks. The tale that was probably most embellished in my mind was something about him filling a tennis ball with black powder, wedging it under a refrigerator in a field, and launching that fridge twenty five feet in the air (or was it fifty?). He didn’t do a lot of fireworks making while I was a kid, but pre-made stuff was around and he’s returned to pyrotechnics as a retirement hobby. Like a lot of kids who have access to the pyrotechnics and a safe place to use them, I was often obsessed with experimenting with their power, danger, noise, and light. Luckily I’ve still got all my fingers — I definitely did some stupid stuff. As I’ve grown up and moved on, I now can’t tell you the last firework I ignited. However, after spending the last decade obsessed with cameras, projectors, holograms and photons in general, something about pyrotechnics is drawing me back again.

Mankind’s relationship and history with fire has always been full of tension. The myth of Prometheus and the gift of fire — fire as the catalyst to our awakening and moving from beasts to humans. There has been a balance of finding the creative potential of fire, while always keeping in mind its inherently destructive capabilities. Being around fire was very much a part of the daily life of every human on the planet up until about 100 years ago — it’s been largely snuffed out in the west. Cooking over large open fires, using it as a heat source, and many other transformative uses used to be essential for everyone, unless you were exceedingly wealthy. It used to be much more important for social reasons as well, used in celebration or just having everyone huddle close to it. Now everyone has found convenient ways to distance ourselves from the source of fire, and many of us in the western world go months or years without seeing a flame up close and personal unless it’s on our stove — especially in cities. We’re safer for it, which is obviously a good thing (although some would argue we’re forgetting how to respect the danger of fire). In many ways it’s still there though — burning coal and natural gas still provide over half of our energy in the US. We’ve extruded the flame and turned it into invisible electricity that flows through our walls and powers our devices.

Pyrotechnics isn’t just fire, of course. Unless performed by a trained professional, pyrotechnics have a much higher danger potential than plain old 🔥. Pyrotechnics are the science of combining chemicals and fire for a range of different effects — explosions, smoke, light (and in this article I’m referring primarily to display pyrotechnics, not things like military pyrotechnics). It is a fine art that has been honed for centuries.

Fireworks and pyrotechnics have a lot of connections to modern day light art and digital spectacles, but I personally haven’t come across a lot of writing or work that connects the two practices. Nota bene that I don’t necessarily think pyrotechnics is part of some lost origin story of light art, but rather that it’s fascinating that humans have been attempting to create very similar things for years and years.

Pyrotechnics were really all we had for grandiose light shows for the masses for about 300 years. They are arguably some of our earlier experiments with combining light and sound. There are some very relevant connections between 18th century fireworks shows and modern day architectural projection mapping. In a way, they are some of the closest things to we have to what we are all hoping for in a volumetric “hologram.” There are a lot of other fascinating bits of pyrotechnic history that have very little representation online or elsewhere, so I’ll share some of those highlights as well. This overview will be very euro-centric because that’s most of the historical documentation I could find, but if anyone knows of good readings for historical pyrotechnic usage in Asia, I’d love to hear. With that, let’s dive in and look at pyrotechnics as a precursor to architectural projection mapping.

Fireworks and Projection Mapping

There is very little new under the Sun, and in my research I came across a lot of pyrotechnic accounts that seemed very similar to some of the things artists have been doing with projection mapping in the last decade.

Just one of many similarly styled architectural projection mapping pieces from the 2010's

The relationship is a fuzzy one, but I think you’ll appreciate the similarities, and the fact that we’ve been chasing this large scale architectural light beast for centuries.

In 17th century Europe, fireworks were becoming more of an established art form. People began to discover more and more about how the chemistry of fireworks worked, and they gradually got more and more sophisticated. The larger shows were typically put on as state celebrations for the end of a war, the coronation of a new monarch, or something else worthy of a bombastic display. Some shows weren’t just for spectacle alone, but were put on for the purpose of telling a story for the people. Creation myths were shown in various forms, famous battles were abstractly represented with fireworks — they were even used to represent different kinds of scientific phenomena. It’s unclear how much of the deeper meaning a layman got from watching these shows, but often there were tens of thousands of people who showed up for each one.

All over Europe there were displays of various sizes, and often they weren’t just launching fireworks from the middle of a country field. Many were set off in crowded cities around buildings and landmarks. Russia even had a purpose built amplitheater for fireworks displays — 600ft long and 2 stories high (Werrett, 114). Some displays used specially designed sculptures-like lions or heavenly statues-that had fireworks embedded inside of them. Many of these were static, but some had elaborate mechanical mechanisms for staged reveals or actions over the course of a show.

Image of a 1637 set piece that transformed to reveal a knight over the course of a display — Source
(Left) — from Page 19 of Brock’s Pyrotechnics — History and Art. (Right) — From the Metropolitan Museum’s Brochure on a 2000 exhibit on Fireworks art — Source

Some of the largest shows employed what were called machines (sometimes spelled macchines). These were essentially large structures that took the shape of buildings for the express purpose of covering them in fireworks and setting them off. Every square foot of these structures would be covered in a barrage of different types of mortars, spinning wheels, and things called lances that were essentially just steady colored lights that burned brightly.

Some excerpts from books describing machines:

Vanochio, an Italian, in a work on artillery, dated 1572, attributes to the Florentines and Viennese the honour of being the first who made fireworks on erections of wood, decorated with statues and pictures raised to a great height, some in Florence being seventy-two feet high.

He adds that these were illuminated so that they might be seen from a distance, and that the statues throw out fire from the mouth and eyes. He refers to the practice, which survived up until the end of the eighteen century, of constructing elaborate temples or plaaces richly decorated, with transparencies illuminated from inside, statuary, gilding, floral and other decorations. On these erections the fireworks proper were displayed, and which were then called artificial fireworks” — Brock, Pyrotechnics History and Art, 1922, pg 19.

From pg 21 Brock’s Pyrotechnics: History and Art

In the publick Piazza…was a Machine, built in very handsome Architecture, rais’d on an arch of Rock-work, with several large Figures, for the Fire-Works; the four principal figures representing the four Quarters of the World. These with others at a distance, which they call Girandole, whirling in a thousand Varieties before the Eye, and so numerous a Chorus of admirable Musick filling the Ear, gave a surprisingly magnificent entertainment.” — an account of the Chinea festival in Rome in 1720. Werrett, pg 133

Since the days of Il Tribolo, architects had been central in Italian pyrotechnic displays, acting as the inventors of elaborate temporary edifices for fireworks. Architects exploited these opportunities to build fantastic imaginary structures, full scale temples in three dimensions, constructed with wood and iron frames and hung with trompe l’oeil painted cloth and papier mache and stucco decorations prepared by a small army of carpenters, turners, painters and sculptors. These macchine or “machines,” which became typical of displays across the italian states, were the most elaborate fireworks decorations of the eighteenth century, their popularity shifting the focus of fireworks spectacles from pyrotechnics to fantastic architectural experiments” — Werrett, pg 133

These machines weren’t little scale models either, they were MASSIVE. One of the most famous is the Green Park display of 1749 (above) — for celebrating the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle. It is recorded to be 114ft high and 400ft long — “adorned with Frets, Filding, Lustres, Artificial Flowers, Inscriptions, Statues, Allegorical Pictures, etc” (Werrett, 151). It took 5 months to build and was composed of wood and white painted canvas. The show started with a piece composed by Handel, with accompaniments made by brass cannons places throughout the structure. The actual fireworks went from about 8:30pm until midnight, over the course of which, the right wing caught on fire and the workers responsible got in a brawl.

Page 49 in Brock’s “A History of Fireworks” 1949

There are many many more of these accounts of huge structures being adorned with fireworks. Here is an exerpt from Goethe’s journal describing an illuminated church:

To see the colonnade, the church and, above all, the dome, first outlines in fire and, after an hour, decome one flowing mass, is a unique and glorious experience. When one thinks that, at this moment, the whole enourmous building is a mere scaffolding for lights, one realizes that nothing like it could be seen anywhere else in the world…. Then the blaze was over, and again the full moon softened the lights and made everything a fairyland again.” Goethe, 1787 (Salatino, 83)

In addition to structures, fire was really the only way we had of illuminating large scale images for a long time — there was the magic lantern used in phantasmagoria, but those images would be far too dim for outdoor use. There are some descriptions of fireworks used to light transparent paintings, but sometimes images were made from small points of fire (fire pixels, if you will). This method was used to show a wide range of imagery — sometimes not completely static, as Brock notes:

In 1887 what is known as the transformation set piece was introduced. Upon lighting, the piece exhibits a floral design in colors, which, after burning some time, becomes transformed into a portrait, the lines of which are worked inconspicously with those of the floral design, and, to use a modern term, camouflaged by its colors, the color of the potrait being white. […] A popular picture of this kind if the puzzle picture which transforms from a jungle scene to animals. (Brock, 52)

Below is a large image of how Queen Victoria was lit on a massive burning structure — video of that follows later on.

From Brock’s History of Fireworks — 1949 — pg 192

In addition to adorning buildings, famous structures were also recreated in flame, as below:

Brock “Pyrotechnics History and Art” pg 50

I don’t find it too much of a stretch that this kind of image making at scale is wholly different from things being attempted with projection mapping in the last decade. The ingenuity to create these images in fire was at the height of the technology of the time. Sure projection mapping is a lot more versatile, cheaper, safer and more dynamic — but you have to admit that seeing a structure purposefully covered in flame would be an awe inspiring sight.

On that note… In 1892, we covered the Brooklyn Bridge in fireworks — here is what that looked like:

From Brock’s History of Fireworks pg 217

Here is a New York Times account of that 1892 show (some sources put it at 1883 when the bridge opened). They re-created this in the 1983 on the bridge’s 100th anniversary (more images and info here):

Fireworks as volumetric display

As noted in my other article on digital displays, we have been looking for ways to display volumetric images for quite a long time. For centuries, fireworks were the closest thing we had available for making a floating volumetric shape. Admittedly the rendering capabilities are fairly limited — some of the best I’ve seen at public displays in NYC are things that end up as mishapen 😀 or ❤️ or cubes. It still takes an incredible amount of engineering to get those simple shapes to render out of an explosion though. We don’t have a lot of digital technology that comes close to rendering something like this out of thin air:

The video above gives you a much better sense of the volume of an exploded shell than you usually get from the ground viewpoint.

Compare that to the below — something that is at the forefront of display technology — the Aerial Burton Plasma Combustion Display:

Taking the Aerial Burton Plasma Combustion idea to an even larger scale, massive fleets of drones have been used to make large scale volumetric pixel art. Below is a video of a fleet 500 drones equipped with color changing LED’s being used to make transforming imagery in the sky — the next evolution of pyrotechnic imagery:

I can see some connections between the above and Sky Lantern festivals as well.

And finally — not all fireworks are light based these days, below is an amazing display of “daytime fireworks” that use smoke to create their volumes.

Cai Guo-Qiang’s Daytime fireworks for a different kind of shape.

Notable things from the history of pyrotechnics

Ok, I couldn’t tie this into digital spectacles as well as the others, but it’s too amazing not to share what we used for covering actors in light prior to the invention of LEDs.

“Living” fireworks: This video from 1905 is amazing. Make sure to watch for the flaming chicken fight at 3:06, the naval battle scene at 2:34. The craziest part is at 3:24 — a flaming house catches on…fire (??) and then a flaming fire engine shows up with two guys wearing an asbestos suit covered in flaming lances come to put it out. A flaming fireman comes in a flaming fire engine to put out a house made of fire with a hose that shoots fire.

Everything is fire.
Those hand painted fireworks at the beginning…so good

Here is what that fireman looked like covered in lances:

Brock’s “History of Fireworks” pg 176

This wasn’t just done once, and the guy died and they never did it again — they did this all the time! No christmas lights, no LED’s, just giant matchsticks. In the early 1700’s they used to tie fireworks to bulls, dogs and bears (Brock, 56) so at least they eventually went with a more humane approach. Brock has more details on living fireworks:

Living Fireworks, invented and patened by C.T. Brock and Co., in 1888 have always been a favorite feature of the Crystal Palace Displays. The performer is clad in overalls of asbestos cloth, and on the side nearest to the spectators wears a light wood framework, of which the outline is “lanced” to depict the particular character to be portrayed. The first subject dealt with was the boxing match. […] Other favorites have been: Cat fights, cock fights, the boxing Kangaroo in 1893, Fishermen, Indian Snake Charmer, have all been produced by living actors in fire. (Brock, 52)

Here is a video shared with me after posting this article — a slightly more interactive living firework performance:

There are many more of these described — including a “Living Firework Drama” — I encourage you to check out the PDF. There is also a story about a famous mishap in 1673 where a man covered himself in fireworks and got on a long zipline and went over a crowd while his suit of fireworks went off. He unfortunately fell to his death — RIP quack doctor Karls. Advertising is so tame these days.

RIP Quack Doctor Karls — Brock History of Pyrotechnics pg 213

Pyrotechnics and early visuals: Keep in mind that fire was pretty much our only means of illumination until electric lighting. This means that people were using it to experiment with things like optical illusions by combining it with colored glass and other moving elements independent of fireworks that exploded in the sky. There is the often mentioned ocular harpsichord of the 1700’s that was Bertrand Castel’s early experiment with combining colored lights and musical scales. Below is an optical cabinet that used different colored wheels illuminated from behind to create imagery that had never been experienced before.

Image from Werrett’s Fireworks — pg 237. If anyone can find a video of this, I’d love to see it…

Sometime in the late eighteenth century, a Dutch clockmaker turned his hand to philosophical fire working, producing a cabinet whose interior mechanism sent colorfully painted transparent patterned discs revolving on a spingle. Illuminated from behind with a candle, the whirling spirals and patterns on the discs mimicked the swirling flames or fireworks. Other discs in this cabinet of “optical fireworks” illuminated a pyrotechnic temple, a coat of arms, and spiraling stars, fiery columns and the image of a Mont-golfier balloon.” (Werrett, 201)

Werrett also mentions a machine piece called the Salamander from the 1770’s that has a lit up moth being chased by a fiery snake with the mechanics hidden out of sight (pg 223). All compelling instances of people trying to make abstract to highly representative animated light imagery several hundred years before we had the tools to do so.

Fade out

All of the above really only scratches the surface of some of the amazing stuff I came across while researching. The history of pyrotechnics is fascinating, and I’ve been hoping to share some of that with others that work with digital spectacles every day.

Pyrotechnics business is still booming (sorry) for many, but it’s not something you can just try out in a workshop or put together a mortar in your bedroom. It’s still an incredibly dangerous art, and many states require special training and licenses to even get involved with it even on a curiosity level. These are all very positive developments — most books I read had a whole section on horrific accidents that happened when safety precautions were still being developed. However, due to this high barrier of entry, I’m curious where this artform will go over the next century as we continue to refine other safer forms of light manipulation. Many huge expensive shows are still being put on globally, and these shows continue to refine and elevate what kinds of motion and feelings can be conveyed with pyrotechnics.

I’m curious what most people get out of going to see fireworks on New Years or the Fourth of July in the US. Some people could care less (the you’ve seen them once, you’ve seen them all mentality), some people are there out of tradition, and some people just want to ooh and ahh at the pretty lights in the sky. Some people have a genuine fear of the noise and lights, and they avoid fireworks altogether, as they can easily be a post traumatic stress disorder trigger.

In my opinion, there will always be something poetic about fireworks that keeps bringing us back. Something that relates back to our occaisional feeling of our place in the universe — a great explosion that hangs and shimmers in the air for one beautiful moment before fading out without a trace.

Sources/Further Reading:

Most of the historical context mentioned above was from these books:

Simon Werrett — Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History — 2010 — (Link) — Very densely historical with some interesting conclusions about how pyrotechnics played an incredibly important role in scientific discoveries of the 17th and 18th century.

Alan St H. Brock — A History of Fireworks — 1949 — (Link) — Has a very wide swath of historical info, but has a lot of focus on British firework. Probably the best general knowledge book on this list.

Kevin Salatino — Incendiary Art:The Representation of Fireworks in Early Modern Europe — 1998 — (Link) — Mostly images, but has a nice essay accompaniment that draws conclusions not found in some of the other books

George Plimpton — Fireworks: A History and Celebration — 1989 — (Link) — Has some interesting historical info and general info, but a lot of frankly anecdotal stories from the author’s visits to different shows and events that can drag on a bit.

Other great articles:

One of the articles that got me interested in revisiting this whole area of pyrotechnics, really nicely written overview:

More imagery: Picturing Pyrotechnics

Good summary article: Power of Pyrotechnics

Great Lecture from Simon Werrett on the History of Fireworks and how they related to scientific discovery during the Enlightenment: