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Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

Fireworks are synonymous with celebration in the twenty-first century. But pyrotechnics—in the form of rockets, crackers, wheels, and bombs—have exploded in sparks and noise to delight audiences in Europe ever since the Renaissance. Here, Simon Werrett shows that, far from being only a means of entertainment, fireworks helped foster advances in natural philosophy, chemistry, mathematics, and many other branches of the sciences.


Fireworks brings to vibrant life the many artful practices of pyrotechnicians, as well as the elegant compositions of the architects, poets, painters, and musicians they inspired. At the same time, it uncovers the dynamic relationships that developed between the many artists and scientists who produced pyrotechnics. In so doing, the book demonstrates the critical role that pyrotechnics played in the development of physics, astronomy, chemistry and physiology, meteorology, and electrical science. Richly illustrated and drawing on a wide range of new sources, Fireworks takes readers back to a world where pyrotechnics were both divine and magical and reveals for the first time their vital contribution to the modernization of European ideas.


“Lucid. A fireworks of reflections on the historical geography of art and science.”

H. Otto Sibum, Uppsala University

“In this thoroughly original account, Simon Werrett traces fireworks as an object of practical and theoretical knowledge across an impressive swath of European geography and history. Still more inspiring is his wide-ranging yet subtle analysis of the place of fireworks in the history of science and culture, demonstrating the fascinating transformations that pyrotechnics underwent as it was employed by newly self-confident gunners to refine their image as peaceful deployers of gunpowder, as it was taken up by court culture for new representations of power, as it moved back and forth between practitioners and scholars, became an object of natural philosophical speculation, spread into the realm of polite society and public science, merged with the investigations of the new phenomenon of electricity, and finally staked its claim to the new field of chemistry.  Along the way, Werrett makes many invaluable points about the intersections of fireworks with political, religious, economic, and intellectual debates, and, in his comparison of fireworks in London, Paris, and St. Petersburg, he brilliantly underscores the contingency of the development of natural science.”

Pamela H. Smith, Columbia University

“Simon Werrett has written a spectacular book which uses the history of fireworks to cast light on questions of broad and fundamental importance. Refusing to be bound by traditional narratives that cast craft as subordinate to theory and limit our gaze to the local or national character of scientific and artisanal endeavor, he gracefully teaches us to appreciate the complex relations between early modern science and artisanry, in terms of their temporal, geographical and practical developments.”

Lissa Roberts, University of Twente

“Simon Werrett’s Fireworks places the pyrotechnic arts at the heart of European culture in the early-modern era.  It examines fireworks in relation to royal and courtly patronage, to public entertainment, to the development of commerce, and to the scientific culture of the Enlightenment.  No mere passing spectacle, this is a genuinely illuminating book.”

Jan Golinski, University of New Hampshire

“[Werrett] provides novel insights into a neglected aspect of European civilization. . . . Fireworks will interest those concerned with the interactions of science, technology, and society and those interested in the history of manipulations of societies.”

F. N. Egerton, University of Wisconsin-Parkside | Choice

Table of Contents



ONE “Perfecting the Pyrotecnique story”: The Ingenious Invention of Artificial Fireworks

TWO Philosophies of Fire: Pyrotechny as Alchemy, Magic, and Mechanics

THREE A Touch of Cold Philosophy: Incendiarism and Experiment at the Royal Society

FOUR Spectacular Beginnings: Fireworks in Eighteenth-Century Russia

FIVE Traveling Italians: Pyrotechnic Macchine in Paris, London, and St. Petersburg

SIX The Encyclopédie and the Electric Fire: Pyrotechnic Contexts for the Arts and Sciences

SEVEN Philosophical Fireworks: Domesticating Pyrotechnics for a Polite Society

Conclusion: The Geography of Art and Science





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