Ronald explains how his career moved from chemistry teacher to founder of one of the UK's leading fireworks companies.
Ex luce lucellum - out of light a little profit
Ronald's interest in chemistry started at the beginning of the Second World War. He was intrigued by his cousin reading chemistry at Cambridge and was encouraged by a local pharmacist to pursue his curiosity. However, instead of following his initial passion to read medicine, an interest in teaching and the church took over. His experience teaching at a prep school during the holidays, while working towards his ordination, led Ronald to move to a parish in Kimbolton, where he taught chemistry, divinity and psychology, became the college chaplain and eventually founded Kimbolton Fireworks UK Ltd.
A chemistry teacher for 25 years, it was during this time that Ronald was able to conduct much of the research that has been enormously useful today. On-site at the independent school where he lived, he built workshops and stores with like-minded colleagues to pursue their hobby of manufacturing fireworks.
This small operation of three or four schoolmasters has now grown into the UK's market leader in fireworks production and operator-fired displays; the company stages numerous large firework displays, and it was involved in putting together the spectacular display at the London 2012 Olympics. However, it originated from humble beginnings and a keen interest in chemistry.
Ronald is the author of a textbook on fireworks and was awarded a Royal Society of Chemistry fellowship for his popular public lectures. He received an MBE in 1992 for his services to the fireworks industry and in 2009 he received an honorary degree in chemistry from Durham University. Reverend Lancaster shows you do not have to follow a traditional route to be successful in chemistry.
Fascinated by fireworks
“When I was young I lived quite close to two or three firework factories and I remember seeing a display for the coronation in 1937. I became fascinated by the displays and by the idea of creating new individual fireworks and explosions.
“In the late 1960s the industry was in steep decline because of adverse publicity, and a number of companies went out of business. While teaching I lived on-site at an independent school. Along with like-minded colleagues I built workshops and stores so that I could put in a few hours of enjoying my hobby and manufacturing fireworks.
“My first ever display took place in St Neots, at a time when we were not even thinking of doing public firework shows. I mainly held displays at the end of the summer term, in early September and during a short period in November. The only time I had to ask for time off during term time was to carry out a display outside Buckingham Palace for the 25th anniversary of the coronation in 1978.
“I believe that the enjoyment of a firework display depends very much on the situation and the state of mind. For example, I recall a small firework display on a beach on the East coast on a balmy night after a nice meal and a glass or two of wine. It did not cost very much, but it was delightful. My feeling about it might have been different had I witnessed it eating a soggy hot dog on a wet, foggy night on Salisbury Plain. I also recall a fantastic display on the sea off La Croissette in Cannes, for which we were awarded the Vestale D'Or prize.
“An important stage for the company was the introduction of technology. I regard myself as a fireworks maker and this is very important to me, but I have to leave it to the next generation to stage the new shows that require computers, complex firing systems and musical accompaniment. By making use of these latest developments some amazing things have been accomplished. Many of the new spectacles need huge sums of money and very expensive equipment, which is very different to the box of fireworks that used to give children so much pleasure back in the sixties.”
Using chemistry to create fireworks
“Chemistry plays a small but important part in the manufacture of fireworks. A small number of chemicals are used, along with a number of natural gums and resins. Naturally some chemicals react with each other, while certain metals like magnesium or iron can corrode and change their reactivity. Most of these reactions are well understood and experiments over the years and our experience have shown which components make the best fireworks.
“Much has been written about the chemistry involved in fireworks in recent years, but it is not surprising that some of the new experts have no practical experience. For example, many people seem to think that we use strontium nitrate to create red colours. It is used in military flares but not in fireworks, because it is hygroscopic.
“Most of the chemicals found in fireworks have been used for several hundred years, although some, like toxic arsenic compounds or expensive chemicals, have been dropped from fireworks production. Others, like titanium, have only become part of fireworks in the last fifty years. Some new, complex organic materials are prohibitively expensive, which means that their use in fireworks likely remains a long way away.”
Keeping the business at the forefront
“In the early days the fireworks business was profitable. In fact, I was able to set money aside and build a new factory without having to borrow much from the bank. Firework displays filled a niche at that time, and the team was still behaving more like academics than businessmen. I doubt that anyone makes a sensible profit today, because it is easy to purchase materials from China and because of the large number of people in this business.
“It was during my time as a teacher that I was able to do a great deal of research, which has been enormously useful today. We used to do trials at dusk and the students that boarded were used to it.
“Starting as a small operation, with two or three other schoolmasters, the core business has now grown to include about 20 people in a factory that spans five acres. We also have a very large number of trained part-time display assistants, because many of the displays are clearly seasonal. Competition from China has severely dented the Western fireworks industry both in the European Economic Community and the US. As a result we manufacture items that are either competitive or distinctive, which gives us an edge over the universal Chinese fireworks display.
“There is a marked decline in the number of fireworks manufacturers and the people with the specialist knowledge required for the industry. As the last significant manufacturer of display fireworks in the UK, I have often been asked if I would do it all again. Being someone who loves fireworks, my answer is yes. However, if the idea was purely to create a profitable business, then the answer would have to be no.
“Today Kimbolton Fireworks remains a family-owned business with a commitment to deliver the highest quality products and services. My original motto was 'Ex luce lucellum - out of light a little profit', now it is 'Unrivalled in quality and service'.”
Interview by Sarah-Jane Cousins
Video © knuckle.tv
Published April 2013