Explosive Things

5 November 2014, 12:00 - 14:00

Room SG1, Alison Richard Building

Dr Simon Werrett (Dept of Science and Technology Studies, UCL)
Haileigh Robertson (History,Royal Armouries,York)



Simon Werrett
Theatre and Effect in Early Modern Fireworks

Much of the literature on early modern fireworks displays tends to treat them as texts, to be deciphered and read for their symbolic and allegorical content. In this talk I focus on the performative aspects of early modern pyrotechnics and the practical, material techniques used to create fireworks spectacles in the period. Under the heading theatre I explore the way fireworks were stage-managed and related to pyrotechnic images and knowledge in printed books and manuscripts. Under the heading effects, I review the performative properties of different kinds of fireworks such as sound and colour and the logic of early modern performances – the ways materials were supposed to relate to one another in order to produce effects. I conclude by showing how these performative elements were not only critical in making fireworks effective tools of state and court spectacle, but also had an impact on natural philosophy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Haileigh Robertson
The Role of Gunpowder in Early Modern Science

Gunpowder was a subject of interest for many early modern experimental natural philosophers. Attracted by the massive physical power given off on ignition, the early moderns experimented frequently with gunpowder. Owing to gunpowder’s most obvious application, in warfare, some of the experiments conducted had the intention of improving gunpowder—both procurement and performance. The early modern experimentalists however, especially those following Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) projected mode of inquiry, saw gunpowder as much more than a military propellant.  Natural philosophers involved with the Hartlib Circle and early Royal Society, for example, proposed new ways of harnessing gunpowder’s energy.  Whilst gunpowder’s utility was undoubtedly important for the early modern experimentalists, there was much more to be gained from the close study of the incendiary substance. Bacon and Robert Boyle (1627-91), for example, used gunpowder to resolve disputes over matter theory. Gunpowder experiments were significant not only because they were practically interesting. They occasioned theorising over fundamental issues in early modern science.

This paper explores the uses of gunpowder in early modern natural philosophy. I outline how gunpowder was used, why it was used, and the implications of its employment. Drawing on the reproduction of early modern gunpowder experiments conducted in collaboration with the Royal Armouries (Leeds), I examine precisely how gunpowder affected early modern experimental science. It will be demonstrated how gunpowder served the natural philosophers who employed it, as well as the specific challenges it posed. I argue that for early modern experimental natural philosophers gunpowder was not only about what it could do, but what it could tell us. Gunpowder was a source of potential knowledge



Open to all.  No registration required

Part of Things that Matter, 1400-1900 Research Group seminar series