Untold lives blog

28 posts categorized "Science"

29 June 2018

Sarah Sophia Banks’s Ballooning Scrapbook and the Science of Popular Spectacle

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Sarah Sophia Banks was the sister of Joseph Banks, botanist on James Cook’s first voyage and later president of the Royal Society.  Her scrapbook on ballooning displays the importance of spectacle to scientific endeavour at the end of the 18th century.

The Cook voyages were linked in the popular imagination to the science of exploration, as well as to the sensational and the spectacular. This convergence of science and spectacle was similarly present in the mania for hot air ballooning which captured the public’s imagination. Balloons became reflective of fashionable excess, flightiness of manner, and sexual exploits in a way that echoes the reflective spectacle surrounding exploration narratives and fiction following the Cook voyages.

Sarah Sophia Banks’s ballooning scrapbook contains satire, informative illustrations, and discussions of ballooning from a number of angles, including political, militaristic, artistic, and fashionable. There are newspaper clippings and depictions of the major figures in aeronautics at the time. The famous aeronaut Lunardi was known for his spectacular feats of aeronautics that engaged in both the science of experimentation and in the spectacle of performance.

  Mr LunardiMr Lunardi making an experiment on the Thames. The British Library. Sarah Sophia Banks Collection. L.R.301. h.3.

This image depicts Lunardi ‘making an Experiment on the Thames of his invention to save persons from drowning’.  It displays the drama and the spectacle of ‘experiments’ which attempted to use the science of aeronautics for the benefit of the public.  However, it also highlights the sensational, nationalistic, and Romantic aspects of this seemingly benevolent effort.

The angles of the image, from that of Lunardi’s oar to the Thames’s waves, convey a sweeping sense of motion.  Amidst this, however, Lunardi remains graceful and undisturbed by the wind that blows the flag behind his head.  His face serene, his chin held high, Lunardi is the image of the Romantic, both amidst and above the elements surrounding him, contemplating, yet unfazed by, the dangers of aeronautic experimentation.  The United Kingdom’s flag attached to his small vessel, and the boats flying the Cross of St. George in the background, display the nationalistic undertones of the mania for ballooning, in spite of the foreign spectacle that Lunardi and other Italian aeronauts had come to represent.

Overall, the print, though illustrating Lunardi’s ‘experiment’ more effectively illustrates its sensational value as a popular spectacle. Lunardi’s handsome appearance as he paddles his small craft nobly and bravely over the turbulent waters of the Thames is illustrative of the inextricable nature of science and spectacle in the mania for ballooning and its representation in mass media culture.

  A Real Apple‘A Real Apple’. The British Library. Sarah Sophia Banks Collection. L.R.301. h.3.

Sarah Banks’s scrapbook becomes increasingly interesting as she brings in other forms of spectacle in the latter portion.  The account of the ‘wonderful and astonishing apple’ blurs this line between spectacle and science.  The advertisement for this apple that bears resemblance to the head of an infant garners a sort of authority and scientific status by claiming to have been shown to Joseph Banks.  Sarah Banks’s scrapbook as a whole demonstrates that the spectacular is of particular importance to the science of ballooning and other forms of exploration and discovery.

Kacie Wills
University of California, Riverside

Further reading:
Clare Brant, “The Progress of Knowledge in the Regions of the Air?: Divisions and Disciplines in early ballooning,” ECS 45.1 (2011): 71-86.   
Richard Gillespie, “Ballooning in France and Britain, 1783-1786: Aerostation and Adventurism” Isis 75. 2 (1984): 248-268.   
Arlene Leis, “Cutting, Arranging, and Pasting: Sarah Sophia Banks as Collector,” Early Modern Women 9.1 (2014), 127-140.
Arlene Leis, Sarah Sophia Banks: Femininity, Sociability and the Practice of Collecting in Late Georgian England, PhD Thesis, (University of York, 2013),
Gillian Russell, “Sarah Sophia Banks’s Private Theatricals: Ephemera, Sociability, and the Archiving of Fashionable Life” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 27.3-4 (2015): 535-55.

Visit our exhibition James Cook: The Voyages
Open until 28 August 2018


12 June 2018

Sauerkraut, sugar, and salt pork – the diet on board Cook’s 'Resolution'

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In May 1775 Captain James Cook called at St Helena in the Resolution on his voyage back to England.  Cook sailed away with eight East India Company soldiers who had been granted a discharge after serving their contracted time. The Royal Navy sent the Company a bill for the soldiers’ food and drink, detailing exactly what they had consumed over the course of three months.

Cook Resolution add_ms_17277_(2)Drawing of the Resolution made during Cook's Third Voyage British Library Add.17277, No. 2 Images Online

St Helena was administered in the late 18th century by the East India Company and there was a garrison of soldiers based there.  The eight men who took their passage home in the Resolution were Thomas Green, John White, Samuel Clare, David Grant, John Jones, Thomas Rhodes/Roades, Richard Spite/Spight, and Michael Kerry/Carey.  The Royal Navy Victualling Office submitted a bill for supplying the men from 16 May to varying dates in August when they left the ship.  This was computed to be the equivalent of the cost of 701 men for one day, a total of £36 9s 11¼d.  So the cost of victualling each man was about 12½d per day.

  Cook Resolution diet IOR E 1 59 - 3IOR/E/1/59 f.483

The Company was charged for –
Bread 701 pounds
Wine 43⅞ gallons
Brandy 21⅞ gallons
Salt beef 37¾ pieces
Salt pork 25 pieces
Fresh beef 200 pounds
Flour 112½ pounds
Raisins 37½ pounds
Pease 3¼ bushels
Wheat (for oatmeal) 4 bushels 5½ gallons
Sugar 75 pounds
Vinegar 6¼ gallons
‘Sour Krout’ estimated at £1
'Necessary money' 13s 5d

Lack of vitamin C in the diet of sailors on long voyages resulted in the disease scurvy which could prove fatal.  The symptoms of scurvy are swollen gums that are prone to bleeding, loose teeth, bulging eyes, easy bruising, scaly skin, and very dry hair.  To counter this, James Cook replenished supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables for his crew whenever the ship made a land call.  He also took with him ‘Sour Krout’, that is sauerkraut, cabbage fermented with lactic acid bacteria.  On Cook’s first Pacific voyage in 1768, the Navy wanted to trial the efficacy of sauerkraut in combatting scurvy.  The Endeavour was provided with 7,860 pounds of sauerkraut, a ration of 2 pounds per man per week.  Cook reported back to the Victualling Board in July 1771 that no ‘dangerous’ cases of scurvy had occurred and that he, the surgeons and the officers believed that the sauerkraut had played a large part in achieving this.

Cook’s second voyage with the Resolution and Adventure lasted three years and, although there were outbreaks of scurvy, only one man died from the disease.  The Victualling Office bill shows that there was still some sauerkraut left towards the end of the voyage.  Let’s hope that the Company soldiers enjoyed their ration, perhaps washing it down with some of their 43⅞ gallons of wine and 21⅞ gallons of brandy!

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/E/1/59 ff.482-483v Account from the Royal Navy for victualing eight soldiers in the Resolution 1775
IOR/G/32/36 St Helena Consultations May 1775
Egon H. Kodicek and Frank G. Young, ‘Captain Cook and scurvy’ in The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science, vol. 24 no. 1 (1969)

Visit our exhibition James Cook: The Voyages
Open until 28 August 2018


08 May 2018

Senior Statesman of British Biology: John Maynard Smith

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To publicise our upcoming event Dear John: The 'Kin Selection' Controversy presented by the British Library and Undercurrent Theatre, we present the last of three blogs by PhD student Helen Piel on evolutionary biologists George Price, William D. Hamilton and John Maynard Smith. 

JMS_1John Maynard Smith c1965. © University of Sussex

John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) was one of Britain’s most eminent evolutionary biologists. His career spanned half a century, first at University College London, and then from 1965 at the University of Sussex. Educated at Eton, Cambridge (where he took a first degree in engineering, working as an aircraft stressman during and briefly after the Second World War) and UCL, he showed a remarkable ability to discern and describe biological problems and to ‘do the sums’: Maynard Smith brought his mathematical abilities and trust in models over into biology from his earlier education and training.

At UCL he studied and later worked under J B S Haldane, one of the founding fathers of neo-Darwinism (the merger between Darwin's theory of natural selection and Mendelian genetics). In the laboratory of Helen Spurway, Maynard Smith worked on genetics with the fruit fly Drosophila subobscura and later tackled the questions of ageing and sex. After his move to Sussex he focused increasingly on theoretical questions, and in 1973 published a seminal paper on ‘The Logic of Animal Conflict’, together with George R Price. The paper combined evolutionary biology and an idea taken from economics (game theory) to suggest a new way of studying animal behaviour: in evolutionary game theory, individual animals are pitted against each other like players in a game. In 1999, Maynard Smith was awarded the Crafoord Prize (biology’s equivalent to a Nobel Prize) for his work on evolutionary game theory. 

JMS_2John Maynard Smith c 1984. © University of Sussex

Maynard Smith was also known for his successful efforts to communicate evolutionary biology to a broader public, writing his first book The Theory of Evolution in 1958. He published various essay collections and The Origins of Life (1999), a ‘birdwatchers’ version’ of one of his books aimed more at a specialist audience (both co-authored with Eörs Szathmáry). From the 1960s he regularly appeared on radio and television, and was a frequent guest on the radio show Who Knows?, where a panel answered questions sent in by the public.

Smith also contributed as a scientific advisor to programmes, and narrated the Horizon episode ‘The Selfish Gene’, based on Richard Dawkins’ book of the same name, which itself was based on several of Maynard Smith’s ideas, particularly evolutionary game theory.

Although a theoretical biologist who avoided fieldwork throughout his career - his bad eyesight had dissuaded him from joining fellow undergraduates who went on to study under the famous ethnologist Niko Tinbergen at Oxford - his love for nature was obvious in his avid gardening. During summers he would open his garden to the public, and his Who's Who entry cites 'gardening' as one of his two favourite recreations. The second was 'talking'.

Helen Piel
Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) PhD student, University of Leeds and the British Library


Further reading:

Helen Piel (2017). Local Heroes: John Maynard Smith: (1920-2004): A good "puzzle-solver" with an "accidental career". The British Library, Science Blog.

Marek Kohn (2004). A Reason for Everything. Natural Selection and the English Imagination. London: faber and faber.

John Maynard Smith (1985). In Haldane’s footsteps. In: D. A. Dewsbury (ed.) Leaders in the Study of Animal Behavior: Autobiographical Perspectives (pp.347-354). Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press.

30 April 2018

‘Most distinguished Darwinian since Darwin’: William D. Hamilton

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To publicise our upcoming event Dear John: The 'Kin Selection' Controversy presented by the British Library and Undercurrent Theatre we present the second of three blogs by PhD student Helen Piel on evolutionary biologists George Price, William D. Hamilton and John Maynard Smith. Today William D. Hamilton.

William D. Hamilton teaching at a seminar. Harvard, 1978. Copyright © Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

According to Richard Dawkins, William Donald Hamilton was ‘a good candidate for the title of most distinguished Darwinian since Darwin’. Hamilton (1936-2000) was an eager naturalist during his childhood years, collecting and botanising in Kent – just a few miles from where Darwin lived. He studied genetics at Cambridge and became intrigued by the ideas of Ronald A. Fisher, one of the founding fathers of Neo-Darwinism, the marriage between Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Mendelian genetics.

After Cambridge, he started a PhD jointly supervised at the Galton Laboratory at University College and the London School of Economics. In his autobiographical writings he recalled feeling lonely, unappreciated and unsupported – his project to study the genetics of altruism did not meet much encouragement. Hamilton remembered being introduced to John Maynard Smith but unfortunately, nothing came of that brief encounter.

Detail from a draft page of ‘Genetical Models for the Evolution of Competitive and Social Behaviour.’ eventually published as ‘The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour’. Copyright © Christine Hamilton.

The important result of his graduate work was ‘Hamilton’s Rule’, which solved the puzzle of altruism by taking what we now think of as a gene’s eye view of nature. Altruism had been a problem for evolutionary studies since Darwin's day, as one would expect that animals want to increase their own chances of survival and reproduction, not help others increase theirs. In 1964, Hamilton published a ground-breaking two-part paper on ‘The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour’. 'In brief outline,' Hamilton wrote, 'the theory points out that […] a gene may receive positive selection even though disadvantageous to its bearers if it causes them to confer sufficiently large advantages on relatives' because 'relatives, on account of their common ancestry, tend to carry replicas of the same gene.' That is, altruism evolved because it guarantees that genes are passed on to the next generation through relatives, and the closer one is related, the higher the degree of altruism. For instance, you share ½ of your genes with your siblings and parents, ¼ with your grandparents, and 1/8 with full cousins.

In his later career and after some time at Michigan University between 1978 and 1984, Hamilton was research professor of the Royal Society and fellow of New College Oxford, working in Oxford's Zoology Department. Among other things, he studied parasites and their evolutionary impact. Throughout his life he undertook several expeditions to the Brazilian jungle, following his childhood natural history adventures in Kent, and later to the Congo, where he was looking for evidence regarding a theory on the origins of AIDS. Recognition for his ideas often came late, as many biologists had difficulties with Hamilton's mathematics or because the ideas were buried in obscure remarks in book reviews or papers already dealing with other topics. But his 1964 paper is now one of the most cited works in biology, and in 1993, he was awarded the Crafoord Prize (biology's equivalent to a Nobel Prize) for his work on genetics and altruism.

Helen Piel
PhD candidate, University of Leeds and the British Library

Further reading:

Ullica Segerstrale (2013). Nature’s Oracle. The Life and Work of W. D. Hamilton. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Marek Kohn (2004). A Reason for Everything. Natural Selection and the English Imagination. London: faber and faber

William D. Hamilton (1998, 2001). Narrow Roads of Gene Land, Vol. I and Vol. II.  Oxford: Oxford University Press

23 April 2018

Calculating Kindness: George Price

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To publicise our upcoming event Dear John: The 'Kin Selection' Controversy presented by the British Library and Undercurrent Theatre we introduce the first of three blogs by PhD student Helen Piel on evolutionary biologists George Price, William D. Hamilton and John Maynard Smith. Today we start with George Price.

George Price, London 1974. Copyright © Estate of George Price

George Robert Price (1922-1975) grew up in New York before he moved to study at the University of Chicago in the 1940s. He gained his PhD in chemistry for work he had done on the Manhattan Project but later, he struggled to find a job that satisfied him and his big ideas, scientific and otherwise.

In 1966, Price was operated on for thyroid cancer but the operation didn’t go well; he had to take medication for the rest of his life. With the insurance money, he moved to England the following year. Interested in altruism and conflict, he taught himself evolutionary biology and spent his time in the libraries around London. Around March, he came across William D. Hamilton’s 1964 two-part paper on ‘The genetical evolution of social behaviour’, published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology. Finding the mathematics in it too dense for library reading, he wrote to Hamilton asking for a reprint. Unfortunately, Hamilton replied, he had none left, but instead sent a reprint of his latest article on sex ratios which dealt with similar ideas. Price in fact disliked one idea suggested by Hamilton – that people are genetically predisposed to be kindest to kin (“inclusive fitness”), which seemed to deny true, selfless altruism. He tried to disprove it, but his Price Equation ended up proving Hamilton right (and landed Price a job at UCL). The two men struck up a correspondence and friendship that would last until Price’s death in 1975.


Extracts from a 1969 letter from Price to William D. Hamilton recounting his discovery of the Price equation and subsequent employment at UCL. Copyright © Estate of George Price.

In the summer of 1970, Price underwent a religious conversion and mainly refocused his energies on Jesus and the Bible. He put himself and his faith to the test, among other things stopping to take his thyroid medication. In October 1972 he wrote to John Maynard Smith that he was ‘now down to exactly 15p and [his] visitors permit for staying in the UK expire[d] in less than a month’ – to which Maynard Smith replied, ‘I have less faith than you do that the Lord will provide. Please let me know at once if I can help.’

Maynard Smith and Price had been collaborating in what was to become their 1973 seminal paper, 'The logic of animal conflict', in which they applied game theory – originally developed in the context of economics by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern – to evolutionary biology. By pitting animals against each other as in a game, supplied with strategies like probing and retaliating, and running these through a computer simulation, Maynard Smith and Price showed that it was evolutionarily beneficial for individuals not to escalate a fight and risk wounding or death.

Price’s faith eventually led him to spend his energy on the homeless in his area. After losing his flat, he briefly stayed in his office at the Galton Laboratory before moving into a squat near Euston in 1974. In 1975, he committed suicide. Hamilton and Maynard Smith both attended the funeral.

Helen Piel
Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) PhD student, University of Leeds and the British Library

Further reading:

Calculating Kindness (2016). Undercurrent and Camden People’s Theatre in partnership with the British Library

Laura Farnworth (2016). Calculating Kindness: Meeting George Price. The British Library, Untold Lives Blog

Oren Harman (2010). The Price of Altruism. George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness. London: The Bodley Head

12 February 2018

Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose: The man who became famous for his research on plants

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In the last blog post we left our fictional hero, the astronomer in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and his real-life counterpart, Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose, on the fringes of Western sciences. The former fails to get international recognition for his discovery of the Little Prince’s asteroid because of his traditional Turkish clothes, the latter fails to get international recognition for his invention of a coherer that would enable wireless telegraphy because of his reluctance to patent his invention. It is now the year 1920, and things are about to change for both our heroes.

Eleven years after the astronomer’s disappointment at the International Astronomical Congress in 1909, a Turkish dictator passes a law that requires all Turkish citizens to dress in European clothes. So the astronomer returns to the congress in 1920 and repeats his demonstration, but this time “dressed with impressive style and elegance”; and this time round, “everybody accepted his report”. Also in 1920, Bose becomes a Fellow of the Royal Society. Eleven years after he was not awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention that paved the way for the radio, Bose has now arrived at the heart of Western scientific institutions.

Burlington_House_ILN_1873Burlington House, which housed the Royal Society 1873-1967. Via Wikimedia commons.

As Patrick Geddes writes, this “formal acceptance and recognition by his European peers” came to Bose as “the culmination of a series of discussions and incidents spread over two decades”. One such incident happened in 1901, when Bose presented his results on “Responses in the Living and Non-living”, which he published as a book in 1902, to the Royal Society. In his talk, Bose showed that external stimuli, such as poison or electricity, have a similar effect on living tissue, such as plants or muscle, and inorganic matter, such as iron oxide or tin. Bose recorded response curves for muscle, plant, and metal and was thus able to show comparable effects of external stimuli on animals, plants, and metals alike.

This was not only revolutionary, but also unacceptable to parts of his audience. Bose, the physicist, was crossing disciplinary boundaries to chemistry, biology, and physiology, and neither the chemists, nor the biologists nor, particularly, the physiologists were happy. He was asked to revise his paper and negate his own results about the electric response of plants, not because his experiments were scientifically unsound, but because Sir John Burdon Sanderson, a famous professor of physiology, did not believe what he had seen with his own eyes. After all, he had tried to obtain these results in his experiments, but never managed. How could a physicist from India possibly achieve what he had not?

PlantNice plant image, nothing to do with the text. Via the British Library Flickr Commons.

At this point of the story, it might come as no surprise that Bose refused to alter his paper, which was consequently not published in the Royal Society’s “Proceedings”. As before, Bose had to rely on time (and his colleagues) to catch up with him; and they did. Eventually. As Geddes writes about Bose’s award of the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1920: his experiments, which were “questioned and belittled in the first stage, have since added a marvellous new province to the empire of human knowledge”.

Christin Hoene

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in English Literature at the University of Kent, and Researcher in Residence at the British Library

08 February 2018

Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose: The man who (almost) invented the radio

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The story of Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose’s life and achievements reads somewhat like that of the Turkish astronomer in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, who discovers the asteroid from which the little prince comes. The astronomer presents his findings to the International Astronomical Congress “in a great demonstration”, but also “in Turkish costume, and so nobody would believe what he said”.

J.C.BoseThe Birth Centenary Committee, printed by P.C. Ray.  

Like his fictional counterpart, Bose (1858 – 1937) for a long time found himself at the edges of Western sciences. He was born in India, came to England in the 1880s to study at University College, London, and Christ’s College, Cambridge, and returned to Calcutta in 1885, where he was appointed Professor of Physics at Presidency College. Here Bose conducted experiments that would lead him to almost invent the radio – something for which his contemporaries Guglielmo Marconi (1874 – 1937) and Karl Ferdinand Braun (1850 – 1918) won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909. Neither Marconi nor Braun mentioned Bose in their Nobel Lectures; despite the fact that Bose’s invention of a specific coherer, which turned out to be a crucial component for wireless telegraphy, predated Marconi’s experiments by 21 months.

However, Bose never patented his invention. Quite to the contrary: he openly displayed the construction and workings of an earlier version of his coherer when he was invited by the Royal Institution to give the prestigious Friday Evening Discourse on 29 January 1897. Afterwards, The Electric Engineer noted with “surprise that no secret was at any time made as to its construction, so that it has been open to all the world to adopt it for practical and possibly money-making purposes”. Bose’s biographer and contemporary Patrick Geddes (1854 – 1932) notes that Bose was “criticised as unpractical for making no profit from his inventions”, but that it fit both his character and his conviction to seek “no personal advantage from his inventions”.

Jagadish_Chandra_Bose_microwave_apparatusDiagram of Bose's microwave spectrometer apparatus, built between 1894 and 1897. By Jagadish Chandra Bose [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, Marconi had less scruples. On 12 December 1901, Marconi used Bose’s 1899 improved version of the coherer to receive the first transatlantic wireless signal. Marconi also applied for a British patent on the device that was not his, in which he did not even mention Bose’s name. Marconi deliberately muddied the waters when presenting “his” invention at a lecture at the Royal Institution on 13 June 1902. As Probir K Bondyopadhyay writes: “By the time Marconi gave his lecture at the Royal Institution, he was already under attack by his own countryman, and Marconi, through his careful choice of words, caused deliberated confusions and, using clear diversionary tactics, shifted attention to works of Hughes, who was already dead at that time”.

Bondyopadhyay’s article was published in 1998. It took almost a century to unveil the true origins of the device that brought us wireless telegraphy and the radio and to give due credit to Bose. Like the astronomer in The Little Prince, Bose did not play by the rules of Western science, and therefore nobody listened. But also like his fictional counterpart, Bose changed garb. And suddenly, people did listen. 

Keen to learn more? Head over to part two!

Christin Hoene

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in English Literature at the University of Kent, and Researcher in Residence at the British Library

Further reading:

Bose's legacy and his contributions to the invention of wireless telegraphy are still a contested issue. For a differing account on the “Boseian myth”, see Subrata Dasgupta's book Jagadis Chandra Bose and the Indian Response to Western science, particularly pages 76-83 and pages 250-254.

05 November 2017

Pyrotechnia: A ‘how-to’ guide for firework-makers

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Pyrotechnia, written by a gunner called John Babington, was the first English book about how to make recreational fireworks. It was printed in 1635, seven years before the Civil War. Gunpowder had long been used on the battlefield but, in England, it was only during Elizabeth I’s reign that this technology developed into something that would create fantastic aerial displays. Elizabeth I was famous for her love of fireworks; sumptuous displays were held in her honour and to celebrate military victories.

Pyrotechnia title page

Pyrotechnia told firework-makers all they needed to know about the chemical compounds and complex structural designs required for firework displays. Babington’s instructions are clear, easy to understand and are accompanied by labelled engravings, while the last two sections of the book are helpfully reserved for a treatise on geometry and logarithms respectively. Babington starts simply, with fireworks that are familiar to us today. His is the first printed reference to a roman candle, and there are descriptions of how to make rockets and ‘the best sort of starres’. For stars of a blue colour a combination of gunpowder, saltpetre and sulphur-vive did the trick. He then progresses to making “silver and gold raine”, firework wheels and “fisgigs”, a French firework that fizzed before it exploded.

This was all small fry though. Once a firework-maker had mastered the basics, he could recreate the type of spectacle enjoyed by Elizabeth I. One sight in particular was especially popular during this period: the dragon.


It consisted of a huge wooden frame stuffed with spinners, fountains, firecrackers and rockets that ignited to give the effect of a huge fire-breathing creature. Often, a second dragon or St George would be pitched against it and a mock battle would take place. In Pyrotechnia, Babington instructs the reader to strap the dragon and St George together so that, when a wheel is turned, “[they] will runne furiously at each other”. They had to be well balanced as otherwise “they [would] turn their heeles upward, which would bee a great disgrace to the work and workman”. Babington also acknowledges that “much [has been] written upon this same subject”, confirming the dragon’s popularity.

Mermaid and Ship

 A large proportion of Pyrotechnia is also dedicated to creating fiery spectacles on water, a great skill indeed for any firework-maker. Babington reveals “many workes to be performed on the water”, from “how to make a water ball, which shall burn on the water, with great violence” to a “ship of fire workes” and sirens or mermaids “playing on the water”. 


The British Library has three copies of Pyrotechnia. The copy in the photographs above has endpapers with a fantastic assortment of manuscript notes and inscriptions by the book’s 17th-century owner. On the first endpaper, most of an ownership inscription can just about be made out: “Edward Nowle[?] his booke bought…25th January …”. Written arithmetic, diagrams and sums are scrawled over the next two pages. It’s obvious that this book was well-used by its previous owner but were they a firework-maker themselves? Did they create a fire-breathing dragon? I suppose we’ll never know!

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections