Fireworks: An Explosive Tradition
CULTURE | July 16, 2019
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.
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.
Eventually, the gunpowder recipe began to spread westward. Marco Polo was responsible for bringing fireworks from Asia to Europe in 1295; however, Europeans had already been exposed weapons made from gunpowder years earlier during the Crusades. Gunpowder recipes also traveled to Europe and Arabia via diplomats, explorers, and missionaries. Western scientists and metallurgists increased the potency and used the substance to create cannons and muskets.
At the same time, gunpowder was still being used to create fireworks which were set off during celebrations and religious ceremonies. European rulers used fireworks to entertain their followers and illuminate their castles on special occasions. The first recorded instance of a royal fireworks display occurred on Henry VII’s wedding day in 1486. The fireworks display at James II’s coronation in 1685 was so impressive that the firemaster in charge received a knighthood. Czar Peter the Great of Russia celebrated the birth of his son with a five-hour fireworks display.
During the Renaissance, pyrotechnic schools began to open and teach future fireworks artists. In the 1830s, the Italians began incorporating additives into the fireworks to make them brighter and more colorful as fireworks. The Italians added strontium for red, barium for green, copper for blue, and sodium for yellow. Before this time, fireworks displays consisted of loud explosions and orange flashes. The displays created by the Italians were much closer to what is seen today.
Fireworks traveled to the New World along with the European settlers. Legend has it that Captain John Smith set off the first American fireworks display in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1608. In 1731, Rhode Island banned the use of pyrotechnics after colonists went too far with firecracker-related pranks. On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote to his wife that the celebration of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, which would occur the following day, should be celebrated with “illuminations,” a term used for fireworks. He got his wish and on July 4, 1777, the first anniversary of the signing, fireworks became an Independence Day tradition.
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