Sometimes you see an older book that makes you realise just how much the world has changed. “Firework making for amateurs” is one of these. Even the adverts are thrilling: my favourite is for John Page, a “pyrotechnic chemist”. Wouldn’t you just love to have a pyrotechnic chemist on your street?
Mercury and cyanide feature heavily in the book as ingredients, and even the author breezily admits that firework-making can be dangerous. But it’s the sheer ambition of the book that impresses, leaving me with feelings of inadequacy very similar to those inspired by the “average boy“. The chapter on rockets, for example, has a page of beautifully illustrated ‘rocket-making apparatus’ and states cheerfully that “they can be made by any good wood-turner and machinist.” Later pages are even more daunting: “fig 56 shows rocket complete, with clay top, brass stud and spindle”. Giving up on hopes of successfully making a rocket (a balsa-wood model of Concord was all I managed in school woodwork) I was consoled by the admission that things that can go wrong. Your home-made sparkler may “detonate in a violent manner” instead of fizzing elegantly. Another indoor firework ‘the Pharoah’s serpent’ gives off a cyanide-filled smoke when lit, and so must be lit near an open window unless you want to kill off your admiring spectators. Other disasters could result from “buying cheap explosives” if you were unfortunate enough not to have a local pyrotechnic chemist. For those feeling really ambitious, chapter 21 is entitled ‘shells and mortars’, making it quite clear why firework displays were banned in Britain during the first world war.