Conclave’s Black and White Smoke Mystery: How Do They Make Famous Decision Signal?

Tuesday, 12 Mar 2013 08:35 AM

By Michael Mullins

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During the papal conclave, as Roman Catholics around the world watch to see who the College of Cardinals selects to be the next Pope, some might be curious about how the Vatican shares the progress of the cardinals' decision-making via the black or white smoke coming from atop the Sistine Chapel.

The smoke, black if the conclave has yet to select a Pope and white if the 115 cardinals have made their decision, originates in two stoves in the chapel that share a common flue, or chimney.

In one stove the cardinal's voting ballots are burned, while in the second the white or black smoke is released. The two stoves burn simultaneously, releasing the conjoined smoke from atop the chapel to signal to the faithful in St. Peter's Square, and to the world beyond, the conclave's status.

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To select a new Pope, a two-thirds supermajority vote is required, as well as the willingness of the individual elected.

Traditionally, following a vote in which no Pope was selected, damp straw was added to the ballots to create a sooty black smoke.

However, after several false alarms in 1958's papal conclave, the Vatican started using chemicals to accurately relay the announcement, according to the New York Times.

The process was altered further in 2005 when the Vatican began using cartridges that would produce about six minutes of the desired smoke. In case any confusion remains as to the color of the smoke, bells from St. Peter's Basilica are also rung to announce the election of a new Pope.

What chemicals are used to create the black or white smoke remains a mystery.

Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, told the Times that the chemicals in the cartridges were prepared by technicians "from several different elements."

According to Ben Baxter, director of Pea Soup Limited, an English smoke-machine supplier in Ingleby Barwick, potassium chlorate is likely a principal chemical used in the process, considering that it ignites easily and creates a fine white smoke while burning.

Baxter suggested potassium chlorate is also used for black smoke, along with a black dye to coat the smoke particles.

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"It’s less nasty than anything that would create black smoke in the olden days," said Baxter.

The papal conclave, which began on Monday, is the oldest ongoing method for choosing the leader of any institution according to The Election Law Journal.

Related stories:

Conclave Will Open to Uncertainty, No Clear Front-runner

Catholics Create 'Virtual Conclave' for New Pope

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