Fireworks: An Explosive Tradition

By | July 5, 2019

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Display from the World Fireworks Championship. Source: (Wikipedia)

Fireworks are a common sight in the United States, lighting up the skies every 4th of July as well as at midnight each new year. They can also be seen as part of the nighttime shows at many theme parks. However, most historians have concluded that fireworks were invented in China, though there are some dissenters who believe they came from the Middle East or India.

The prevailing theory is that the Chinese discovered a natural firecracker as early as 200 B.C. This firecracker came in the form of bamboo shoots which, when roasted, would explode loudly as a result of its hollow air pockets. At the time, it was believed that exploding the bamboo would keep evil spirits away. Sometime around 800 A.D., Chinese alchemists unintentionally created an early form of gunpowder by mixing together saltpeter (potassium nitrate), charcoal, and sulfur in an attempt to create a potion for immortality. This gunpowder was then stuffed into the bamboo shoots to produce an even louder blast when thrown into the fire thus creating the world’s first fireworks.

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Bamboo. Source: (

As fireworks evolved, the bamboo shoots were eventually replaced with paper tubes and fuses made from tissue paper were added to eliminate the need to throw the tubes into the fire. By the tenth century, the Chinese realized they could use the gunpowder as a weapon and they began attaching the tubes to arrows so they could shoot them at their enemies. Over the next two hundred years, these airborne fireworks were adapted into rockets which could be fired without the use of arrows. This same technology is used in fireworks displays today.