St John's College Oxford

Fireworks in the College Library

Date 2 November 2017

A 17th-century volume in St John's Library includes the first description of recreational fireworks in English.

Pyrotechnia by John BabingtonModern firework displays can be spectacular, but few of us are likely ever to see a display to match the ones described in ‘Pyrotechnia, or, A Discourse of Artificiall Fireworks’ published in 1635 and written by John Babington.

Babington was a gunner to the Earl of Newport, Master of King Charles I’s Ordnance. During peacetime Babington used his skills to create firework displays. The first part of the book details the chemical mixtures and complex structures needed to create elaborate public displays, featuring rotating wheels, the King’s initials and the patriotic St George and the Dragon. In this last display, the saint and the dragon approach each other in battle along a pole, by means of a series of pulleys and wheels. Babington explains how to load the dragon with a slow-burning fiery mixture at the eyes and mouth, and rockets in its belly and tail which will go off as the creature is ‘wounded’ during the fight!

Dragon from Pyrotechnia by John Babington

Babington describes himself as ‘Gunner and Student in the Mathematicks’, and the second part of the book is a ‘Short treatise of Geometrie’. This includes possibly the first set of logarithmic tables to be printed in England, ‘with Tables for the Square Root to 25000 and the Cubick Root to 10000’. Its intention was to help gunners work out projectile trajectories.

Pyrotechnia by John Babington