Share this article:


  • Join our comunity:

The Chemistry of November 5th Fireworks

By: , Posted on: October 31, 2016


Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive.

For as long as British folk can remember, the nation has celebrated the 5th November with bonfires with impressive (and less than impressive) public firework displays  and smaller displays at home.  But why do Brits commemorate 5th November by setting off thousands of small explosions and what is the chemistry behind the colors and sounds.

Bonfire Night/November 5th commemorates the failure of the Gunpowder Plot by a gang of Roman Catholic activists in 1605. When Protestant King James I acceded to the throne, English Catholics hoped that the persecution they had suffered for over 45 years under Queen Elizabeth I would finally end, and that they would then be granted the freedom to practice their religion. However, this didn’t transpire…

So a group of conspirators led by Guy (Guido) Fawkes planned to assassinate King James and his ministers by blowing up the Palace of Westminster (House of Parliament) during the state opening of Parliament. They somehow, managed to smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder into a cellar of the House of Lords – enough to completely destroy the building. Physicists from the Institute of Physics later calculated that the 2,500kg of gunpowder beneath Parliament would actually have obliterated an area 500 metres from the centre of the explosion!

A contemporary engraving of eight of the thirteen conspirators, by Crispijn van de Passe
A contemporary engraving of eight of the thirteen conspirators, by Crispijn van de Passe

However, the conspirators plan was foiled when an anonymous letter was sent to William Parker, the 4th Baron Monteagle, warning him to avoid the House of Lords. This led to a search of Westminster Palace in the early hours of November 5th. The guards searching the cellars discovered Fawkes, who had remained in the cellars to set off the fuse. He was subsequently arrested, sent to the Tower of London and tortured until he gave up the names of his fellow plotters.

On hearing the news that the Gunpowder Plot had been foiled bonfires were lit  to celebrate the safety of the King. Since then, November 5th has become known as Bonfire Night and is commemorated every year with fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes on a bonfire.

Our good friends at Compound Interest  created these informative infographics on the chemistry behind the colours, bangs, crackles and whistles of fireworks. So when you’re gazing skyward you can amaze, educate or bore your friends with your knowledge of what makes a firework go bang and why it’s the colour it is!

Click to enlarge. To see the original post, click here
Click to enlarge. To see the original post, click here.


Click to enlarge. To see the original post, click here.

These infographics are reproduced with the kind permission of and the original post can be found here and here. The graphic is Copyright© Compound Interest and is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

Connect with us on social media and stay up to date on new articles


A field as broad as chemistry is cross-disciplinary by nature. Chemistry researchers, in their work or study, may encounter issues in materials science, biochemistry, chemical engineering, or a wide range of other disciplines. In addition to the major areas of organic and inorganic chemistry, Elsevier content covers advanced topics such as quantum chemistry, analytical chemistry, physical and theoretical chemistry, energy generation and storage, nano-chemistry, surface and interface chemistry, and environmental chemistry. This content is available over a spectrum of formats that includes journals, books, eBooks, undergraduate textbooks, multi-volume reference works, and innovative databases and online products like Reaxys. Learn more about our Chemistry books here.