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Learn the History of Fireworks
July 2017
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Learn the History of Fireworks
Do you know how fireworks got their spark?

Fireworks are synonymous with Independence Day but often make appearances at select baseball stadiums to celebrate homeruns, ring in the New Year and celebrate life events like weddings. The boom and explosion of colored lights in the night sky is a wondrous sight that never fails to impress.

Although today’s firework displays, especially on the Fourth of July, seem to get grander and more impressive each year, fireworks’ original spark was a bit of a fiery surprise.

Chinese legend

Although some accounts claim fireworks first exploded in Arabia or India, a Chinese legend has become the most popular version of the history of fireworks.

Around 200 B.C. the Chinese were already making noise with natural fireworks, according to History.com writer Jennie Cohen, who noted that the practice of roasting bamboo was a sizzling way to scare away evil spirits.

According to ThoughtCo.com writer Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D, a later Chinese legend explains that when saltpeter, an ingredient in gunpowder and sometimes flavoring salt, was spilled into a fire by a cook unintentionally, it created an unusual flame. When saltpeter joined forces with charcoal and sulfur, stuffed into a bamboo tube and put to a flame, it produced an explosive result. This basic recipe for gunpowder occurred approximately 2,000 years ago, according to Helmenstine.

And, according to Cohen, this initial concoction is considered the dawn of fireworks.

War and peace

According to Cohen, by the 10th century to defend against enemies, the Chinese would affix firecrackers to arrows and set off rudimentary bombs. This practice eventually led to the creation of the first rockets, approximately 200 years later.

In addition to keeping evil spirits at bay, by the 15th century fireworks soon became traditional spectacles at weddings, celebrations and military victories, according to Helmenstine. 

European reach

In medieval England, the more decorative and joyous use of fireworks was handled by firemasters who were assisted by “green men,” named for their protective clothing, and according to Cohen, they were often victims of their dangerous profession.

Education for European fireworks artists was available at pyrotechnic schools during the Renaissance, according to Cohen, who notes that Italy produced artists capable of vibrant and sophisticated fireworks demonstrations.

“It was the Italians who in the 1830s became the first to incorporate trace amounts of metals and other additives, creating the bright, multihued sparks and sunbursts seen in contemporary fireworks shows. Earlier displays only featured booming sounds, orange flashes and faint golden traces of light,” said Cohen.

New World

Legend has it that in 1608 in Jamestown, Captain John Smith ignited the first display of fireworks, which may have been the beginning of the colonists’ somewhat obsession with the art form, according to Cohen, who notes that in 1731 Rhode Island officials squashed the “mischievous use of pyrotechnics.”

Of course, the most notable fireworks display occurred on July 4, 1776, which established a long tradition of celebrating that most instrumental moment in the history of the United States as well as significant days like presidential inaugurations, notes Cohen.

Today, fireworks continue to represent America’s history and celebrate significant moments in time.


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