CHEMISTRY surrounds us but at this time of year chemistry astounds us, no more so than when we celebrate Guy Fawkes night with amazing displays of fireworks.

I recently attended one in south Nutfield with my family. It was a big display, well organised and a great night out. We all marvelled at are explosive chemical reactions, we were in awe of the massive bonfire.

Fireworks have an interesting history. The origin of gunpowder – the explosive part - is said to have happened when a Chinese cook accidentally combined charcoal, sulphur and another ingredient and “invented” gunpowder.

Another possibility for the origin of fireworks comes from a Chinese tradition of throwing sections of bamboo onto a fire. The air inside expands, and the bamboo explodes – literally a “firecracker”. Originally the Chinese used these to ward off ghosts and evil spirits, later they used the explosive powder in battles.

It wasn’t until the 13th Century that chemicals added to the gunpowder provided what we today recognise as colourful fireworks.

This was done in Italy. Trace amounts of different metals would give different coloured effects as they exploded high in the atmosphere.

Different chemical salts, when set alight, deliver the intense colours we see. From the deep red of strontium to the orange of calcium and the yellow of sodium – also used extensively in older streetlights, giving the orangey-yellow glow that lit many streets at night.

Green is produced by barium with blue coming from copper. If you combine copper and strontium you get a beautiful purple.

My grandchildren are still a little too young to get the specifics of the colours in fireworks, but they get the general idea that different chemicals make different colours.

The story behind our traditional fireworks night is less edifying, it centres on the plot, hatched in 1605, to kill King James 1 (James VI of Scotland) by blowing up parliament. It was a Catholic plot to kill the protestant King. It failed and Guy Fawkes (also known as Guido, an Italian form of his name adopted when he travelled to Spain to seek support for a Catholic rebellion against the protestant King) was arrested as he guarded the gunpowder barrels in the crypt of the then House of Lords.

To celebrate the uncovering of the plot and, in celebration of saving the king’s life, the Observance of the 5th November Act was passed. A new service was added to the Church of England’s book of common prayer and church attendance became mandatory to celebrate the “divine intervention” that saved the King’s life. Bonfires were encouraged to be lit, provided they were “without danger or disorder”.

Decades later however, the celebrations took an undesirable turn. November 5 became more commonly known as gunpowder treason day and the event became inherently more anti-Catholic, rather than a celebration. Effigies based on the Pope were burned, though other popular figures featured as well.

By the late 18th Century we discover the first reports of children building effigies of Guy Fawkes using old clothes stuffed with paper and straw and begging people on the streets for money. Gradually November 5 became known as Guy Fawkes day.

Guy Fawkes gave more to us than a day to celebrate with fireworks. In the mid-1830s, Fawkes’s first name, Guy, was used to signify an oddly or poorly dressed person. Today it’s used to describe a man or can be used to address a group of people.

Guy Fawkes, along with his co-conspirators, were tortured and put on trial in the notorious Star Chamber, a court of law designed to hold the powerful, socially and politically, famous people of the day to account.

There was no doubt about the verdict when Fawkes and his co-conspirators were put on trial. Their guilt was obvious. The sentence included being “drawn”, that is dragged behind a horse and cart at speed, being hanged, then quartered (ideally just before death) which meant being disembowelled. Body parts were then sent to various parts of the Kingdom to be put on display as a warning to others.

Despite Fawkes being the most well-known, he was not the mastermind behind the conspiracy. That was Robert Catesby. Eleven other plotters were involved, all had varying roles from supplying the gunpowder, other weapons, or money to fund the plot. Fawkes was executed January 31 1806. Depending on how you look at it he was “lucky”. He died quickly having broken his neck during the hanging.