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We all know what fireworks are because they soar and roar skywards at night during festivals. They are everywhere in the North American night sky at this time of year, when Canada celebrates Canada Day on 1 July, and the US celebrates its independence from Britain on 4 July. But do you know how fireworks work and how they came about?
When Were Fireworks First Used?
Believe it or not, the earliest fireworks actually began their existence as a plant in China! The Book of Rites of China’s Zhou Dynasty (Zhouli; 2nd century BC) mentions that the trunks of bamboo, which is a tree-like grass with a wood-like, hollow trunk, were lit to create loud, explosive sounds. The louder the bang, all the better to honour the gods and drive away evil spirits with.
Later records mention a more practical explanation to the popularity of this practice in remote areas of China: that such excessively loud bangs drove away mountain animals that were neither afraid of humans nor of fire. Nevertheless, the practice of lighting bamboo was fixed on the first morning of the New Year, which was heralded by the first crow of cockerels.
What Ingredients Are in Fireworks?
As the stability of the Zhou Dynasty gave way to the chaos of later dynasties, Daoist priests who often lived as hermits began to look for secrets to eternal life. Their forays into elixir-making not only resulted in medicines and medical skill, but gunpowder, which consisted of saltpetre, sulphur, and charcoal.
It should come as no surprise that a Tang Dynasty (AD618-AD907) Daoist priest, Li Tian, hit on the idea of filling small bamboo cylinders with gunpowder for a louder bang and smokier atmosphere. Legend has it that he was trying to drive away a mountain demon that had latched itself onto Li’s neighbour, but it has also been recorded that he used his gunpowder-bamboo cylinders to successfully treat a plague that had broken out.
Li’s idea of placing gunpowder into smaller-sized cylindrical containers (these were called ‘firecrackers’) caught on. By the Song Dynasty, cylindrical paper containers were used in place of bamboo, and the sulphur was replaced with other elements, producing the softer-sounding fireworks that produced a wide array of colours. These ‘flowers-of-smoke’ skyrocketed in popularity to such an extent that they became used during non-religious celebrations such as birthdays.
How Did Fireworks End Up in Europe?
The rise of the Mongols brought an end to the Song Dynasty (AD960-AD1279), and it was during this time that fireworks became widely used in warfare to give signals and pass messages. This brought gunpowder to the attention of the Mongols, the Arabs, and the Italians.
Whether it was taken there by Italian merchant and explorer Marco Polo (AD1254-AD1324), or whether it travelled through the Silk Road, fireworks ended up in Italy, where recipes were developed independently of Chinese ones. For example, the sulphur used in China was replaced with sodium nitrate (table salt) in Italy to create yellow fireworks.
How Do Modern Fireworks Work?
Modern firework recipes are mostly based on Italian ones, which used metals to produce a startling array of colours. But the Italians did not just come up with new recipes. They also modified the shape of the container. Where the Chinese had used cylinders, the Italians used cones, and as a result, Italian fireworks fizzed, whizzed, whistled, sang, boomed, and, of coursed, banged.
Whether Italian or Chinese, the chemical component of all fireworks are: 1) a chemical mixture that produces a colour, 2) an oxidiser, and 3) a fuel. After a firework is lit, the oxidiser reacts with the fuel to produce energy which propels the firework into the sky, where the chemical mixture ignites, producing the sounds, sparkles, and colours we are all familiar with.
What Is the Future for Fireworks?
Fireworks are now used around the world for all kinds of celebrations, most notably in the various public New Year's Eve displays in most capital cities of the world. They have become very complex, and at the last count, there are 13 different classes of firework.
They can get also get very smoky, and have been known to frighten children, pets, and autistic adults, and for this reason, soundless and less-smoky varieties of fireworks with all the sparkle and none of the noise have been developed. An alternative to these, which have been developed in China where fireworks were born, are electronic fireworks, which are laser and light projections which can be controlled with computers to produce the desired effects.
Unlike firecrackers, which haven’t found wide acceptance outside Asia, fireworks have become the mainstay of night-time celebrations around the world and will continue to be so as long as parties go on. So despite this pandemic, I’ll be looking out for them later on in the year, in November, when they’ll be around in UK gardens for the Hindu festival of Diwali and the English celebration of Bonfire Night. If you’re lucky enough to be seeing fireworks where you are, enjoy them from a socially distant view and stay safe!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Beanie Lei
Beanie Lei (author) on September 21, 2020:
Marissa from Nigeria on August 13, 2020:
Thanks for sharing this detailed history of fireworks.
Beanie Lei (author) on July 05, 2020:
Thanks for your kind words, Ankita; glad you liked it!
Ankita B on July 04, 2020:
Informative article. Thanks for sharing.