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What is a Catherine Wheel?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 19, 2024
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A Catherine wheel is a type of firework which is very popular in Great Britain. In other nations, it is sometimes better known as a pinwheel. Its basic design includes a hub on which to rotate, with explosives mounted to it. When ignited, the hub spins, throwing sparks and flame from the firework.

The firework is named, oddly enough, for a Christian martyr. Catherine of Alexandria lived during the fourth century CE, and was by all accounts an uncommonly well educated woman. In addition to being well read, she participated in debates with leading members of society, and successfully converted many highly placed individuals to Christianity. As a result, she was condemned to “breaking on the wheel,” a death which involved having one's limbs broken and threaded through an abundantly spiked wheel. The victim would succumb to his or her injuries, but only after several days. However, when Catherine touched the wheel, it broke, and she was beheaded instead.

How a firework came to be named after a brutal instrument of torture is unclear. The Catherine wheel does superficially resemble St. Catherine's wheel, as indeed any circular object would. It may be that fireworks were part of the festivities on her Saint's Day, November 25th. Fortunately, the modern Catherine wheel is designed to be associated with festivities, rather than martyrdom.

In the most basic of designs, a Catherine wheel uses a hollow tube filled with explosive powder. The tube is coiled around a central hub, and one end is lit. As the powder explodes, it turns the wheel, causing a shower of often multicolored sparks. In other designs, rockets are mounted on the wheel and simultaneously ignited. The rockets turn the wheel, create a showy display of sparks and flames, and sometimes ignite secondary rockets or tubes of gunpowder to prolong the show. Fancy Catherine wheels may even switch directions.

As with any firework, caution should be exercised when igniting a Catherine wheel. Most users prefer to mount them on a fence or special launcher, which should be doused with water first so that it will not ignite. Take care to secure a Catherine wheel properly, as well, since runaway fireworks can do a great deal of damage.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By tolleranza — On Aug 29, 2011

I feel I have missed out on this Catherine Wheel firework display! Where I grew up in Kentucky fireworks were illegal so although we could just drive to another state, my parents only bought the lame fireworks sensing that the illegality of fireworks spoke volumes.

The most dangerous of any of the fireworks we used were bottle rockets, as they were just too tempting not to try silly things with when we were teenagers (luckily no one was hurt, except our mailbox one year).

By Oceana — On Aug 28, 2011

Oh no, that sounds like the worst torture imaginable! It’s hard to believe what people once did to those who didn’t share their beliefs or lack thereof.

The origin of the name “Catherine wheel” makes me not want anything to do with this firework! I wouldn’t be able to get images of the torture its likeness inflicted centuries ago out of my head as it spun around, all colorful and happy.

Why did the people who named it not call it a pinwheel shooter, or a cinnamon roll spark spitter? Anything would be better than naming it after a death wheel.

By cloudel — On Aug 27, 2011

I don’t like any type of fireworks that stays on the ground and shoots sparks. This sounds like a major fire hazard for those who might place it on the grass!

I live out on a county road, so when we shoot fireworks, we set them in the middle of the pavement if no cars are coming. I can just imagine the look on a driver’s face if he topped the hill to see a pinwheel of shooting flames! We would probably get arrested.

By myharley — On Aug 27, 2011

Fireworks have always scared me. I don't mind watching them from a distance when they are displayed by people who know what they are doing. I just know I wouldn't want to be the one setting all the fireworks off.

When we were kids, one our neighbor boys really had a bad accident from setting off some fireworks. He is lucky that he still has use of one of his hands. I know he did not have access to a Catherine wheel and didn't really know what he was doing, but it was a big lesson for me.

This was enough to keep me away from them. My friend who works in the emergency room at the hospital, says they see a lot of patients because of fireworks accidents.

Many of the fireworks displays are quite impressive, but I will continue to watch them from a distance.

By honeybees — On Aug 26, 2011

While it is illegal to purchase fireworks for personal use in my state, many towns always have a fireworks demonstration for the 4th of July or a town celebration.

In one of our bordering states, buying fireworks is legal, and many people will go across the state line to purchase fireworks. Even though they are illegal, you hear and see them often for a few days around the 4th of July. As a result of this, there are many trips made to the emergency room during this time because of misappropriate use of fireworks.

I have seen some pretty elaborate fireworks displays through the years, and don't know if any of them have included a Catherine wheel or not. In any case, it doesn't sound like something that an average person would want to mess around with.

By JaneAir — On Aug 26, 2011

@KaBoom - I've seen a few mishaps with at-home fireworks over the years. However, I think if you follow the safety instructions you can minimize the chance of injury.

For example, if you follow the articles directions and mount the Catherine wheel securely, you won't have to deal with run away fireworks. And making sure whatever you mount the wheel to isn't flammable is just good fire safety practice!

By KaBoom — On Aug 25, 2011

These Catherine wheels sound pretty dangerous! In my state, at home fireworks were actually illegal up until a few years ago. When I was younger, I thought this law really spoiled the fun. Now that I'm older, I'm thinking it's probably more sensible to leave the fireworks to the professionals.

By Acracadabra — On Aug 25, 2011

I really dislike this kind of firework because they remind me of a crazy party.

My father used to make a big thing out of lighting one every fall, he always thought this was the best type for the grand finale of his one man firework show.

On my twenty first birthday he really went to town. On the big day he banned me from being around, and while my mother set up the buffet he spent hours preparing his show.

Picture the scene: me in a floaty dress, surrounded by a mixture of friends and relatives. We've been fed and watered and are feeling pretty relaxed. Dad calls us all outside, and starts what was a beautiful firework display, until the Catherine wheel piece de resistance!

He'd gone completely overboard, with at least a dozen of the things all over the yard fence. Of course nobody else was allowed to be involved, so he had to light them all himself!

Basically this meant he was dodging between them as they began spinning, sending sparks into the air and making my poor mother nearly faint.

Some of them let off the most hideous screams and whistles, which set the dogs off into howling & screeching mode. Don't even ask me why he had three with nasty solo eyes in the center, they were plain scary!

I can definitely say it was a birthday to remember, and we did forgive him eventually. My mom got a lot of mileage out of it for ages after, with threats to put him on a Catherine wheel featuring quite regularly!

By yumdelish — On Aug 25, 2011

When my British friend said she would bring a Catherine Wheel to our 4th of July fireworks party I was a bit confused!

I thought she was talking about the band with the same name, an alternative rock group that I used to like a lot in the 1990s.

When she showed up with a pinwheel we had a good laugh over the misunderstanding. But she insisted on seeing a Catherine Wheel video, to make sure I wasn't kidding her about it.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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