An Explosive History of Fireworks

Here we are again. Another Fourth of July. Another long weekend. Another moron going to the hospital for a fireworks related accident. However, despite the few people that make the annual trip to the ER, fireworks are deeply embedded with America’s birthday. Fireworks on the Fourth are not only customary, they’re also necessary. But, where did they come from? And, why are they a part of the U.S.A.’s big day? Well my friends, look no further.

Most experts agree that fireworks originated in China centuries ago. While an exact date is more difficult to unearth, it’s believed that the Chinese were setting off firecrackers as early as the Han Dynasty in 200 BC. That would mean that fireworks, in some form, existed long before gunpowder. No one is exactly sure how this discovery was stumbled upon. Some believe that pieces of green bamboo were thrown into a fire, which then exploded after being in the heat for some time. This primitive form of firecrackers were known as “bursting bamboo”, or pao chuk, was used for the next thousand years or so to rid spirits away during the Lunar New Year and during celebrations like weddings and births.

Sometime during the Sui and Tang dynasties (600-900 A.D.) the first pyrotechnic composition was discovered. This precursor to gunpowder was probably the result from monks who accidentally spilled saltpeter on a fire that contained charcoal and sulfur, searching for an elixir of immortality or trying to artificially produce gold. Regardless, someone eventually found out that mixing sulfur, saltpeter (potassium nitrate), honey, and arsenic disulfide would create an explosion. When the mixture was placed into a tube and set on fire, it generated a louder and more powerful bang than bamboo could. And the firecracker was born. Many believe that the man responsible for this discovery was a monk named Li Tian, which is why every April in China there are firecracker celebrations in his honor.

Naturally, this lead to the idea of using these explosions for warfare after the discovery of gunpowder. By the 10th Century, the Chinese were fully aware of the capabilities of explosions, for both psychological warfare and actual destruction. Eventually, bamboo tubes were replaced by paper and later harder objects, such as arrows, rocks and metal. During the 1200s, canons and rockets were used by the Mongols during the conquests of Asia and the Middle East. Word about gunpowder would reach Europe by the middle of the 13th Century thanks to Dominican and Franciscan friars. One of these friars presented Roger Bacon, a Franciscan monk and lecturer at Oxford University in England, Chinese firecrackers. Bacon became one of the first Europeans to study and write about gunpowder. Between 1400-1600, advances in metallurgy allowed for the creation of more advanced canons and muskets. It was during this period that Europe surpassed China in firearms technology.

Italians, on the other hand, had been fascinated with firecrackers since Marco Polo had brought them back from the Orient in 1292, while others believe it was crusaders from the 14th Century. It was during the Renaissance (1400-1500) that Italy had made an art form out of fireworks. Soon, there were fireworks displays that resembled fountains and ones placed on a wheel frame for a circular pattern. These displays were often set off during religious festivals, weddings, and coronation ceremonies, such as during King VII’s marriage in 1496. During the 1730s Britain perfected the art. People from across Europe would travel to Britain’s amusement parks to witness the amazing fireworks displays.

Early settlers to America brought fireworks with them during the 1600s, which were used during special occasions, or, to scare off Native Americans. Fireworks were even set off during the first Fourth of July in 1777. George Washington’s inauguration in 1789 was accompanied by a fireworks display. Less than a century later, when trade relations were established between America and China, firecrackers became a major American import. Around the same time, in Italy during the 1830s, advancements in the scientific world helped create colors that fireworks had never been before. These included green, red, blue and yellow. This new field of pyrotechnics eventually paved the way for the elaborate aerial shows that we know today.

Did you know…?

The proportion of saltpeter in gunpowder was raised to about 75% of the total mixture, with about 15% charcoal and 10% sulfur during the 11th Century. That same formula is still used today.

Colors occur in fireworks by adding metal salts to the mixture. Sodium salts make yellow. Copper salts make blue. Strontium nitrate makes red. Barium nitrate makes green. Carbon makes orange.

China remains the largest manufacturer and exporter of fireworks in the world.

Pounds of fireworks rose in the U.S. from 67.6 million in 1990 to 156.9 million in 1999.

In 1999, Disney pioneered the commercial use of aerial fireworks launched with compressed air rather than gunpowder for the Epcot night time spectacular known as IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth.

The Guinness World Record for largest firework event in the world took place on December 31, 2006 in Maderia, Portugal. The show contained some 66,326 fireworks.

Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York ban the sale of all consumer fireworks including novelties and sparklers by the general public. The remaining states sell fireworks in some sort of capacity.

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