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Jason English
Jason English

How Do They Make the "Pope Smoke"?

Jason English
Jason English

When the Catholic cardinals meet to pick a new pope in the “papal conclave,” they’re sequestered in the Sistine Chapel so their deliberations aren’t influenced by the outside world and so their ballots, burned after each round of voting, remain secret. Updates from within the conclave, then, come not from press conferences or the pontifical Twitter account, but the chapel’s chimney.

For a bit more than a century, the cardinals have signaled their progress by sending colored smoke up the chapel chimney. Black smoke signifies a vote didn’t produce a pope, and white means it did.

When the tradition began, the light smoke was produced by the burning ballots and some dry straw, and the darker smoke by the ballots and wet straw. The results weren’t always black and white, though, and sometimes the smoke signal left the outside world confused. During the 1958 conclave, white smoke plumed from the chimney after one vote. The crowds gathered outside the chapel cheered and Vatican Radio announced that the church had a pope.

Just a few minutes later though, the smoke started to turn dark. The straw that the cardinals added to the fire didn’t take right away, and needed some time to get going.

To avoid this sort of confusion, the cardinals and Vatican officials have tried a few different things to make the two smoke colors, and the election results, more foolproof. They tried smoke bombs for the black smoke in the 1960s. While they left no question about the color, they also filled the room with smoke, sending the cardinals into coughing fits. After that, they tried Italian army flares, and while the color was clear at first, the smoke quickly turned gray, leaving some observers scratching their heads.

In 2005, the Vatican went high-tech, and introduced an “auxiliary smoke-emitting device” that was fed chemical cartridges that could produce clearly colored smoke for up to six minutes. What was in the cartridges was anyone’s guess. The Vatican was oddly secretive about them and would only say that they were prepared from “several different elements.”

Yesterday, though, the Vatican revealed their smoke recipe and technique. The smoke device has a compartment where “different coloured-smoke generating compounds can be mixed,” the Vatican press office said in a statement. “The result is requested by means of an electronic control panel and lasts for several minutes while the ballots are burning in the other stove.”

The black smoke is made from a mix of potassium perchlorate (an inorganic salt commonly used as an oxidizer in colored fireworks and other pyrotechnics), anthracene (a hyrocarbon component of coal tar) and sulfur. The white smoke is produced by mixing potassium chlorate (a similar compound to potassium perchlorate, used in fireworks and smoke bombs), lactose (the sugar found in cow’s milk) and rosin (a conifer resin).

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Big Questions
Why Does the Queen Have Two Birthdays?
CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images
CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images

On April 21, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will turn 92 years old. To mark the occasion, there are usually a series of gun salutes around London: a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park, and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. For the most part, the monarch celebrates her big day privately. But on June 9, 2018, Her Majesty will parade through London as part of an opulent birthday celebration known as Trooping the Colour.

Queen Elizabeth, like many British monarchs before her, has two birthdays: the actual anniversary of the day she was born, and a separate day that is labeled her "official" birthday (usually the second Saturday in June). Why? Because April 21 is usually too cold for a proper parade.

The tradition started in 1748, with King George II, who had the misfortune of being born in chilly November. Rather than have his subjects risk catching colds, he combined his birthday celebration with the Trooping the Colour.

The parade itself had been part of British culture for almost a century by that time. At first it was strictly a military event, at which regiments displayed their flags—or "colours"—so that soldiers could familiarize themselves. But George was known as a formidable general after having led troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, so the military celebration seemed a fitting occasion onto which to graft his warm-weather birthday. Edward VII, who also had a November birthday, was the first to standardize the June Trooping the Colour and launched a tradition of a monarchical review of the troops that drew crowds of onlookers.

Even now, the date of the "official" birthday varies year to year. For the first seven years of her reign, Elizabeth II held her official birthday on a Thursday but has since switched over to Saturdays. And while the date is tied to the Trooping the Colour in the UK, Commonwealth nations around the world have their own criteria, which generally involve recognizing it as a public holiday.

Australia started recognizing an official birthday back in 1788, and all the provinces (save one) observe the Queen's Birthday on the second Monday in June, with Western Australia holding its celebrations on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October.

In Canada, the official birthday has been set to align with the actual birth date of Queen Victoria—May 24, 1819—since 1845, and as such they celebrate so-called Victoria Day on May 24 or the Monday before.

In New Zealand, it's the first Monday in June, and in the Falkland Islands the actual day of the Queen's birth is celebrated publicly.

All in all, just another reason it's great to be Queen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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iStock

Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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