A good Independence Day celebration is not complete without some good old fashioned fireworks. But what may surprise you is the long and very colorful (no pun intended) history of fireworks. We did a little digging and are here to share what we learned.
The creation of the firework dates back to 200 BC, when people in China would heat up bamboo stalks until the air pockets inside popped, emitting a sound thought to ward off evil spirits. Later, at some point between 600 and 900 AD, ancient Chinese alchemists happened to create the combustible mixture we know as gunpowder. This was most likely the result of the alchemist’s pursuit of an elixir of immortality. Combining Potassium nitrate, charcoal, sulfur and a few other ingredients common to the time gave them this primitive form of gunpowder. They began to stuff this mixture into bamboo shoots and throw them into fires creating a loud blast used to ward off evil spirits along with dangerous mountain men thus the first real fireworks were put to use.
It took some time before fireworks developed any further. In the 10th century, the bamboo shoots had been replaced by paper canisters, leading to lighter fireworks that could be used for more than just scaring spirits. Archers began to strap firecrackers to their arrows before firing them making them more dangerous and a lot more frightening. Later, the Chinese developed very primitive rockets, which consisted of explosives that were launched into the air and guided towards the enemy, much like the missiles of today. The same technology is still used today to launch the fireworks.
Thanks to the Mongolians, the Silk Road, and a few European explorers, fireworks soon arrived in Europe and Arabia. At first, it was mainly the gunpowder that was sought after. Militaries were obsessed with creating more powerful mixtures of gunpowder to power their cannons and guns. However, at the wedding of Henry the 7th in 1486, fireworks were used to commemorate the event. This was the first recorded use of fireworks in England. Fireworks became a common occurrence across feudal Europe. Jesters would often use fireworks to entertain his court while fireworks were also used to celebrate military victories. In England, there was position held by the top ranking pyrotechnic in the land called the “fire master”. People who held this position were often given a knighthood.
Later, in Italy during the renaissance, additional research and testing had been done to create the aerial shell and give fireworks more colors than the plain yellows and whites they had originally had. By adding different ionic compounds to the explosives, they were able to create spectacular fireworks like the ones we have today. Italy soon gained renown across the world for their colorful displays. By 20th century fireworks had become very desirable across Europe. French kings regularly put on spectacular displays at Versailles and other palaces, and Czar Peter the Great of Russia arranged a five-hour pyrotechnic extravaganza to mark the birth of his son.
Fireworks have always been big in America; the first reported use of them was in Jamestown Virginia in 1608. Legend has it fireworks were used to celebrate and to scare off Native American tribes. A couple hundred years later, fireworks were used to celebrate the birth of a nation. On July 3rd, 1776, in a letter written from John Adams to his wife, he says, “The day will be most memorable in the history of America,” he predicted. “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade…bonfires and illuminations [a term for fireworks]…from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”
The beauty of fireworks is irrevocable. America’s infatuation with them has shown with nationwide firework shows across the nation. Today, consumers alone spend upwards of 695 million on fireworks just for individual homes. In the US, the largest consumer of those fireworks is Disneyworld, thanks to the Magic Kingdom’s nightly firework shows. For a truly breathtaking display of pyrotechnics, one must see the Pyro Olympics in the Philippines where people from around the globe gather to show their skill and prowess with fireworks. Whether you find them scary or beautiful, it seems that fireworks are here to stay.
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