Here’s What Makes Papal Conclave Smoke Black Or White (And Why Do They Use Smoke Signals)

On March 13, 2013 all eyes were on Vatican City as 115 cardinals from all over the world gathered to elect the 266th Pope of the Catholic Church. Outside at St. Peter’s Square, thousands of people had their eyes on a 6-foot (2m) chimney that’s atop the famous Sistine Chapel waiting for the smoke signal.

White smoke means we have a new Pope; black smoke means that the ballot didn’t result in an election (no candidate received a two-thirds supermajority vote). But have you ever wondered how did the Vatican come up with the smoke signals system? And how do they make it white or black?

Well, because all of you I’m A Useless Info Junkie loyal readers should be the ones answering this kind of questions if brought up in a conversation, here’s the story. (the article continues after the ad)

Even though this tradition looks old, the smoke signal practice only goes back 150 years. Prior to that, when a new Pope was chosen, the news were spread by word of mouth. As explained by Vatican historian Ambrogio Piazzoni:

“[the Vatican] would just tell the town criers who would run through the city spreading the news that there was a new pope. The people would then rush to St. Peter’s and wait for the pope to come out onto the balcony for his first address.”

But then, in 1870, the forces that were trying to unify Italy, eventually captured Rome and scaled down the Papal States to what is actually known today as Vatican City. Of course, Pope Pius IX didn’t like the fact that the Church lost some of its previously own areas and decided to snub the Italians. Therefore, he didn’t use the St. Peter’s balcony anymore and gave his papal address inside the Vatican. But this lack of communication created a problem as they had to invent a new system for telling the world that they had a new Pope. So, they started lighting a fire and letting the smoke speak.

However, it wasn’t until 1914 with the election of Pope Benedict XV, that the cardinals used this white/black smoke scheme to announce the results of the ballot. In order to preserve secrecy, it was decided that the votes would be burned and the black smoke would indicate an an inconclusive conclave while a white smoke would mean that the new Pope has been elected. But how do they do it?

Well, initially they were using straw: if they wanted to have black smoke they were using wet straw, if they wanted white smoke, they were using dry straw. But straw usually produced a greyish smoke which was somehow confusing. So, in recent years, the straw has been substituted with chemicals:

Black smoke: a mixture of potassium perchlorate, anthracene and sulphur

White smoke: a mixture of potassium chlorate, lactose and a pine resin, also known as Greek pitch

And now you know!

If you like what you read, then you will definitely love this one: The Pope Who Sold His Papacy 



Photo: ABC News
Photoshop: I’m A Useless Info Junkie
Sources: The Traditions and History Behind the “White Smoke Over the Vatican” | White Smoke, Pope; Black Smoke, Nope: How Conclave Smoke Gets Its Color

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