Before the influx of today’s myriad of different pyrotechnic product names, there used to be only a few: the Catherine Wheel, Fountain, Rocket, Roman Candle and Mine. That immediately begs a relevant question: Where did names like “mine” or “roman candle” and “Catherine Wheel” actually originate?
Since the “Catherine Wheel” has a lengthy enough history to be embedded into most of our collective childhoods, this article will focus entirely on this one very interesting product. Personally, I can still remember my dad hammering a nail into one of our pear trees to hang up a Catherine Wheel. Today, unless you live in England or Malta or have carefully read Harry Potter books, you probably aren’t familiar with the name. The product has an interesting history, however. After all, how many firework devices do you know of whose name dates back to the 4th century AD?
The Catherine Wheel was first depicted in a mid-eighteenth century book that described it blandly as “a device made to turn in a direction contrary to that in which the smaller rockets affixed to its periphery discharge themselves.” In actuality, Catherine Wheels are made using powder-filled spiral tubes or more commonly angled rockets mounted on a wheel and hung using a pin or nail hammered through its center. When you light the fuse, it spins rapidly and produces a huge spiraling wave of spinning sparks or colored flames.
While written records indicate the first appearance of the Catherine Wheel was in a 1761 publication, it was a thousand
years earlier—in the mid 4th century—that the legend of St. Catherine of Alexandria took form and that the Catherine Wheel came into existence. Legend has it that Catherine was the daughter of the pagan King and Queen of Alexandria during that period of time. She had a reputation as being a very bright girl who was “uncommonly well-educated” and converted herself from paganism to Christianity. In fact, she was so well versed in her religious ideology and faith that she managed to convert several members of the upper echelon of Alexandria to Catholicism.
Catherine was outspoken and became incensed by the pagan Roman Emperor Maxentius. When she was openly critical of his forceful insistence that people worship pagan idols and gods, he took offense. Considering her words a challenge, though, he brought together a group of his most educated advisors, philosophers and scholars to argue against her and dispute her Christian ideas. What he didn’t bargain for was that her knowledge and eloquence would affect some of his allies and supporters who listened, and that her rhetoric would cause many of them to declare themselves Christian as well. Unfortunately, many of these new Christians were put to death for their newfound beliefs, and Catherine was beaten and imprisoned.
During her incarceration, Catherine was visited by literally hundreds of people, ironically including the wife of Emperor Maxentius, who along with most of Catherine’s other visitors, all ended up converting to Christianity, too.
The Emperor was completely baffled at first and attempted to win her over by offering her his hand in marriage. Similar to the vows of a nun, she told him no that she had promised her love, life and body to Jesus Christ. The Emperor did not take the scorn well, and decided Catherine should be tortured and put to death on the breaking wheel. Keep in mind that Catherine was a young, beautiful, talented and intelligent young woman who was condemned to receive the same treatment reserved for murderers and thieves—all because she would not marry the Emperor and declared herself a Christian.
The “breaking-wheel” device at that time was essentially a large wooden wagon wheel with a number of spokes. A condemned criminal would be lashed spread-eagle to the wheel before being beaten by either a cosh (a large stick or bludgeon) or figuratively with a wooden cross. Cruelly, the condemned criminals’ limbs would be broken in between the spokes of the wheel and then threaded through the spokes themselves.
As fate would have it (and some say due to the intervention of an Angel) before Catherine could be lashed to the wheel, it mysteriously exploded killing thousands of the pagans who had assembled to watch her die.
Although she was eventually beheaded, she was sanctified and the many depictions of her throughout history show her holding a smaller version of the wheel that was intended to take her life. St. Catherine still remains the patron saint of spinners (for wool or thread makers) and wheelwrights (people who make wooden wheels) and Millers (people who grind flour or who work in corn mills).
Today, in Malta, Catherine Wheels are still very popular. They regularly build both small wheels and large wheels with complex gears to line the streets during their religious festivals. Some complicated wheels in Malta are over 4 meters (13 ft.) in diameter. They are truly a phenomenal sight when they are all synchronously lighted during one of the many festivals in Malta.