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Many people will be attending firework displays this weekend and will be wowed by exploding rockets, whirling catherine wheels, and showers of golden and silver rain. Similar entertainment was on offer back in the seventeenth century.

 The art of gunnery by Nathaniel Nye, 1647.

In his book The Art of Gunnery published in 1647, the mathematician and Master Gunner of the City of Worcester, Nathaniel Nye, described the manufacture of gunpowder, the operation of ordnance of various sizes, and how to determine distances and trajectories for a gun attack on a city or fortification without using advanced mathematics. However, he also provided instructions for the manufacture of recreational fireworks, and even how to make soothing ointments for any resulting burns.

Creating a firework display.

Nye’s recipe for golden rain involved taking the hollow part of goose quills, filling them with a particular mix of coal-dust and gunpowder, and priming them with pistol powder. Silver rain could be achieved too, with a mixture that he also used for silver stars. ‘Fisgigs, which some call by the name of serpents’ could be constructed by using a small rolling pin to make paper tubes, filled successively with four inches of powder dust, four inches of choke dust,  and 10 ounces of the rocket composition, with a little bit of the star mix to top off. Placing these tubes starry-end down upon the head of a rocket, with powder to blow them out, gave the effect of a shower of many stars. Please don’t try this at home!

Making fireworks.

In the event of burnt fingers or singed eyebrows, Nye had several recipes for unguents that would ease the pain. His mixture using hogs grease or lard took several days of preparation (and sounds utterly revolting), but a soothing ointment made from egg-white and butter was quick and easy to prepare. 

Ointments for burns.


This Special Collections Spotlight article was contributed on 3 November 2017 by the Special Collections Librarian.