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The Accidental and Spectacular History of Fireworks

Lyndon Henry is a writer, editor, freelance investigative journalist and analyst, and transportation planning consultant.

Awesome, spectacular fireworks have become a mainstay of major public celebrations.

Awesome, spectacular fireworks have become a mainstay of major public celebrations.

The Intriguing History of Fireworks

From New Year's Eve to a multitude of major, typically joyful, occasions throughout the year and worldwide, beautiful, breathtaking professional fireworks displays have become a regular attraction in celebrations and festivities. Even ordinary consumers can purchase smaller fireworks for their own use (or misuse).

Nowadays, fireworks (pyrotechnics, as they're known in the trade) are pretty much taken for granted. But their development to this point has taken over 2,000 years and a lot of intriguing history, which will be explored in this brief historical review.

Accidental Discoveries in China

By most accounts, fireworks originated in China. The BBC cites evidence that "primitive Chinese firecrackers date back as far as 200 BC."

But how did this happen? Alexis Stempien, in a Smithsonian article, relates that "Like many inventions, fireworks were created by accident ... and by the search for immortality. Around 200 BC, the Chinese unintentionally invented firecrackers by tossing bamboo into fire...."

This story is elaborated by Claire Wolters in an article on the National Geographic website specifying that this practice began in Liyuan, China. People found that throwing bamboo stalks (which are typically hollow) into firepits caused them to crack and burst open as they caught fire, producing loud popping sounds. According to the Black Cat Fireworks website, this was done "to celebrate the coming of the Lunar New Year," when "People believed that the noise would drive away evil spirits, thus the firing of bamboos was considered to be the best way to ensure a New Year of health, peace and prosperity."

But the really major breakthrough in fireworks development came over 600 years later; in fact, Byron Breedlove reports in an article published on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website that "the genesis of fireworks points to the 7th century Tang Dynasty in China...." Associated as usual with "celebratory practices," this discovery also apparently happened by accident – although there is conflicting speculation as to the circumstances.

The Epic Fireworks website offers a popular legend that "a Chinese cook working in a field kitchen happened to mix charcoal, sulphur and saltpeter," ingredients commonly found in kitchens at the time. Properly mixed and compressed into a small space, such as a bamboo tube, this concoction would explode when ignited.

On the other hand, more sources seem to attribute this discovery to the efforts of Chinese alchemists rather than cooks. Writing on the Education in Chemistry website, Ron Lancaster reports that gunpowder was an incidental discovery while experimentation with salts was underway "to find the elixir of life."

Wolters elaborates that it was alchemists who managed to create gunpowder "from substances like charcoal, sulfur, and potassium," which was crammed into bamboo shoots and ignited with a torch. Stempien also attributes the development to alchemists, and writer Steven John presents the discovery as a monumental act of misintention:

The consensus among historians is that black powder (also known as [. . .] gunpowder) was created quite by accident. One or more alchemists working to create a substance intended to imbue immortality created a powder that would instead lead to the exact opposite of eternal life....

The Early Days of Gunpowder

Lancaster explains what the Chinese experimenters had actually discovered were critical properties of nitrate salts, which functioned as oxidising agents, so that when mixed with some kind of carbon fuel and ignited, they burned explosively. At first, the carbon was provided (curiously) in the form of honey. With further experimentation over time, "mixtures were improved by the addition of alternative forms of carbon" (powdered charcoal eventually proved optimal), "but not until sulfur was added was a reasonably efficient product produced." By approximately 1044 AD, according to Lancaster, "the chemical make-up of gunpowder had evolved to approximately 60% potassium nitrate, 30% sulfur and 10% charcoal."

This, the Chinese had quickly discovered, could also be used as a weapon. It probably comes as little surprise to realize that the development of fireworks and munitions has been intertwined; after all, both have depended on the development, with increasing sophistication, of explosive materials.

According to Stempien, it didn't take long for the Chinese to begin utilizing gunpowder militarily: "By 1200, China had built the first rocket cannons, using gunpowder to aim and blast projectiles at their enemies." However, she points out that "Off the battlefield ... this technology led to something beautiful: the first aerial fireworks."

In about the 13th century, according to Lancaster, Chinese practitioners began to insert the new explosive powder into bamboo tubes, and after sealing the ends, once again "to ward off evil spirits," they tossed the tubes onto a fire so that they made a "cracking" sound. Later the tubes tended to be painted red, "a characteristic of religious objects." Altogether, speculates Lancaster, this process may explain the origin of the word "firecracker."

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Expansion to Europe and Elsewhere

By about this same era, according to Stempien and others, the gunpowder discovery – and the amazing devices that could be made with it – started to travel westward into Europe, as both European and Arabian traders, diplomats, and missionaries began visiting China.

Gradually, the practice of celebrating major occasions with fireworks likewise began to spread out of China to other cultures and countries. This may have happened much earlier than usually thought. For example, in his classic textbook Pyrotechnics, The History and Art of Firework Making, Alan St. Hill Brock asserts the "earliest record of European pyrotechny" to be "Claudius’ account of the public festivities during the consulate of Theodosius in the fourth century A.D." He quotes a translation describing a form of fire which "ran about in different directions" over some planks "without burning or even charring them," forming globes of fire as it twisted and turned.

Through the centuries, technological development continued to plod forward. Eventually, in about the 13th century, various diplomats, explorers, and Franciscan missionaries began to introduce gunpowder, plus the recipes for concocting it, into Europe and Arabia, recounts Alina Bradford in an article on the Live Science website.

The role of the Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Polo is frequently cited in connection with this migration of gunpowder and fireworks technology to Europe, although this might have actually begun a short time earlier by Crusaders returning from the Near East. Bradford specifies that Marco Polo introduced fireworks to the West in 1295. Breedlove speculates that fireworks probably "trickled in over the course of many years, tucked among the belongings of various missionaries, traders, or explorers returning from sojourns to the East."

But of course, gunpowder wasn't coveted just for making fireworks. "Like their Chinese counterparts," recounts Stempien, "Western engineers also developed weapons – this time, muskets and cannons ...."

According to Lancaster, gunpowder was first used in warfare in the 14th century. By this time, too, the gunpowder mixture was getting closer to an optimum formula with as little as 10% sulfur.

Fireworks Embraced by Rulers

Fireworks, meanwhile, were becoming larger and more elaborate in their construction. And just as the Chinese, Arabs, and Romans had done, Europeans learned that fireworks could play a quite useful role in helping to consolidate, buttress, and celebrate ruling power and authority. In late medieval Europe, the ruling authorities used the relatively new and exciting device of fireworks to commemorate military victories and eventually to enliven other public ceremonies.

In England, fireworks displays were an especially effective means used by rulers to entertain their followers and celebrate their own achievements, triumphs, and happy occasions. There seems a consensus that the first royal fireworks display commemorated Henry VII's wedding to Elizabeth of York in 1486 (which brought peace after a long dynastic rivalry).

So important were fireworks displays that rulers established the position of Fire Master within their personnel to organize and manage these displays. In 1685, the fireworks display commemorating the coronation of James II was so stunning that the Fire Master was awarded a knighthood. "Not to be outdone," reports Bradford, "Czar Peter the Great of Russia put on a 5-hour fireworks show to mark the birth of his son."

According to Brock, in contrast to typical (mostly individual, ad-hoc) fireworks production, the manufacture of fireworks in Britain, "as an industry distinct from mere firework making, dates from the early part of the eighteenth century." Prior to that period, fireworks displays "appear to have been generally carried out by the military, or at any rate under the control of artillery or engineer officers."

In fact, the 17th-century ruler William III enacted statutes making it illegal to make, sell, or set off fireworks. Nevertheless, the ruling authorities continued to rely on fireworks to celebrate major events and embellish their own achievements – and for this, they increasingly turned to the emerging private establishments. Thus, notes Brock, "During the period of the operation of the Act, that is from the end of the seventeenth to the middle of the nineteenth centuries, on the occasion of public rejoicing, the authorities were in the anomalous position of employing persons to break the law, both by manufacturing and displaying fireworks."

Fireworks Become More Spectacular

Critical to the quality of gunpowder, explains Lancaster, is the quality of the charcoal. Both the type of charcoal, and its ash content, are important, and "the burning speed of the finished powder is related to the milling time of the powder, its further compaction and formation into various granulations."

Until 1800 most firework mixtures were based on variations of the gunpowder mix. Modern-day fireworks only came into being with the discovery of the powerful oxidising agent potassium chlorate by Claude Louis Berthollet in 1786, and the isolation of aluminium and magnesium (used as fuels) later on.

By the late 18th and early 19th century, according to Lancaster, the best combination of ingredients was at last being produced, consisting of 75% potassium nitrate, 15% charcoal, and 10% sulfur. However, "its performance was unpredictable due to variability in the quality of the materials and the method of production."

At the same time that the explosive mix was gradually being improved, advances were also being made leading to even more colorful and exciting fireworks displays. Fireworks makers were beginning to discover that adding certain additional materials into a firework could produce different colors in the ultimate explosion. Lancaster points out that before 1800, firework displays "would have been mostly gold, as this is the colour formed when gunpowder burns."

However, fireworks makers already had learned that weak green and red colors could be created by adding barium nitrate or strontium nitrate into the device. From that starting point, Breedlove explains, "Experimentation during the 19th century finally yielded the formulas for mixing the various metal salts and metal oxides required to produce the brilliant colors associated with modern fireworks."

For a better understanding of the technological development at this time, it's useful to have an idea of how a firework is constructed and functions. Bradford provides a succinct summary, starting with the firework's aerial shell – a tube to contain gunpowder and dozens of small pods, called "stars," which measure approximately one to 1.5 inches (3 to 4 centimeters) in diameter. Each star contains a portion of fuel, an oxidizing agent, a binder material, and some metal salts or metal oxides (colorants) to generate colour.

When the firework explodes, each star makes a speck in the air. The heat from the exploding gunpowder causes the colorants to produce light in different colors depending on the chemicals of the colorant.

Experimenters found that adding certain metallic salts into the gunpowder mix produced fireworks with additional colors.

Experimenters found that adding certain metallic salts into the gunpowder mix produced fireworks with additional colors.

Better Bangs and Whistles

But gorgeous explosions are just one aspect of the thrill of fireworks – they're also designed to produce a variety of exciting bangs, hisses, whistles, crackles, and other sounds. As Lancaster notes, “Under confinement, gunpowder produces only a dull bang.” However,

With the availability of powdered aluminium and magnesium – as the fuel source – it became easier to make much louder and sharper bangs. This is because the power of the bang is determined by the burning speed of the powder mixture. Mixed with a powerful oxidising agent and as little as a half gram of potassium perchlorate, a loud noise in a thin paper tube can be made.

What about whistles? Although most people think these are produced mechanically in fireworks, says Lancaster, actually these sounds are the result of both placement and special materials. "The first whistles were made in the 19th century and consisted of potassium picrate. Carefully compressed into a short tube, this chemical produces a very shrill high pitched whistle and a stream of sooty smoke."

Safety and Modern Development

By the early 19th century, enhanced by variety in colors and shapes as well as sounds, fireworks were continuing to grow in popularity, and the industry manufacturing them and organizing display performances was also expanding. But accidents had also started to proliferate.

The industry, and those organizing fireworks displays, were still operating under the legal statutes laid down by William III in the 17th century – that is, it was all officially illegal, so there were no regulatory guidelines or rules.

According to Brock, possibly the earliest recorded fireworks accident occurred in 1722 in London, fatally wounding the fireworks maker and burning down his house. That was just a foretaste of what was to come. Over the first couple of decades of the 19th century, a spate of British fireworks accidents, with numerous victims and considerable damage, alarmed the public as well as authorities.

Brock's assessment of safety conditions at the time is blunt: "The manufacture was conducted on lines which, at the present time, appear inconceivably reckless." He describes a situation typical for a number of these accidents: "Several people working in one room in a crowded building, with loose composition and gunpowder, and a fire in an open grate round which finished or partially finished goods were put to dry, and this in a thickly populated area of London." It was not until the Explosives Act of 1875 that safety regulations began to apply to the industry and introduce some degree of protection to fireworks workers and the general public.

Of course, similar developments within the fireworks industry, and safety regulation, were occurring in other European nations, the United States, and elsewhere. Today, along with safety, technology has evolved considerably from the 19th century. Gunpowder is still used in some fireworks, but other fuels such as aluminum and magnesium have been found more efficient. Lancaster explains that "Finely ground gunpowder – called meal powder – is also an important part of the mixtures used for making fountains."

Thanks to this long evolution of human technology and the process of discovery, people of today can enjoy these amazing presentations of spectacular fireworks, with all kinds of shapes, colors, and sounds. Most seldom give a thought to the history underlying these brief exciting events. But perhaps the next time you're looking up at a beautiful fireworks display in the sky, you can reflect on the long, intricate, dangerous, but fascinating path of development that it has taken to make it all come together.

Further Reading on Fireworks

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.

© 2022 Lyndon Henry

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