Fireworks Have A Loud And Colorful History
July 1, 2013

Fireworks Have A Loud And Colorful History

As you watch a spectacular fireworks display on the Fourth of July this year, and you are thinking about the history that made our nation possible, think for a moment also about the history of the fireworks themselves.

Most people give the Chinese credit for inventing fireworks around 2000 years ago. The first firework may have been a bamboo tube dropped into a fire. When the air inside the tube expanded, the bamboo went “Boom!” This loud noise was seen as a good way to ward off evil spirits that might be lurking about on New Year’s Day. This rudimentary firecracker worked even better if you packed saltpeter, charcoal and sulfur into the bamboo. It didn’t take long to figure out that this black powder could be used in weaponry. The Chinese used dragon-shaped rockets against the Mongols in 1279.

Marco Polo is one of the people who brought black powder to Europe in the 13th century. He warned that the noise was so dreadful that anyone not used to it could easily go into a swoon and die. In Europe, the destructive power of gunpowder was exploited to the fullest. Fortunately, the Italians found a more entertaining use for it. Most of the elements of our modern fireworks displays were created by the Italians.

By the time of the Renaissance, wealthy princes were commissioning grand fireworks for their courts to enhance their prestige. Fireworks were used to mark royal occasions such as births, weddings, and coronations. The Catholic Church used them for saint’s day celebrations. The first recorded use of them in England was on Henry VII’s wedding day in 1486. When the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was signed in 1749 in London, the fireworks display was accompanied by The Music for the Royal Fireworks by George Frideric Handel. Fireworks synchronized to music have been around for a long time!

In America, apocryphally, Captain John Smith set off fireworks in Jamestown in 1608. On July 3, 1776, John Adams prophesied that fireworks would become a feature of Independence Day celebrations. He was right. They have been part of the day’s activities since the first anniversary in 1777.  They were also used as part of George Washington’s inaugural celebration.

Until the 1830’s, fireworks were limited to gold and silver colors. The Italians, again, were the ones who figured out how to create the many colors we see today. They chlorinated the powder to make it burn at a much higher temperature and added mineral salts: strontium for red, barium for green, copper for blue, and sodium for yellow.

Obviously, it takes skilled technicians to create fireworks and manage large displays. In medieval England, these experts were called firemasters. While they were working on displays, they often covered their heads with greenery as protection against sparks. This image has been conflated with the pagan “green man.” Whether this was intentional by the firemasters or not, I’m not sure. In any case, there is a contemporary illustration of a firework-wielding “green man” in the second volume of a book published in 1635 called The Mysteries of Nature and Art by John Bate. This second volume deals with fireworks “for triumph and recreation.” The other books deal with water works, graphic arts and experiments.

Today’s fireworks technicians use almost the same chemical formulas as those used 1000 years ago. They have added electronic ignition, computer synchronization and pop music to enhance our experience, but the feeling of awe has always been the same.

As you watch fireworks on Independence Day, take just a moment to recall that their history is just as colorful as the sparkling lights you see before you.

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