The History of Fireworks

I lay in the darkness of my room and the comfort of my bed. The Sun went down a couple hours ago, and I was on the verge of sleep. It’s summer, and I have no tests, projects, or homework assignments to worry about. I can usually peacefully drift off to sleep.

BOOM!

Never mind. No sleep for me. The date is June 26th. What is so special about June 26th that would call for what I hope is fireworks? Nothing. Wikipedia says June 26th is World Refrigeration Day. Maybe people are excited about that?

Then I remember. The 4th of July is coming up. Fireworks are the normal way Americans celebrate their Independence Day. But, for some reason, every year we fire them off at least a week before Independence Day, and at least a few days after. It’s like we decided to have Independence Week instead. 

Anyway, while in bed (obviously not sleeping), I remembered the invention of gunpowder (and therefore fireworks) took place in China. So, I think it is only right to make my first blog post on China’s history be about fireworks. 

The exact history of fireworks is difficult to figure out, since it was so long ago. Historians believe they were invented in the second century B.C. in Liuyang, China. Before the invention of gunpowder, people would throw bamboo stalks into a fire, which would then explode because the air pockets inside would overheat. They believed this would ward off evil spirits. 

Supposedly, the formula for gunpowder was initially discovered by Taoist alchemists when they attempted to make pills of immortality. Instead, they created an effective formula for death. I would have seen this as a sign that maybe immortality isn’t intended for us. According to the formula the non-immortal Taoists made, people used nitr, sulfur, and charcoal to produce black gunpowder. This gunpowder was poured into hollowed out bamboo, and this created fireworks. Later, paper replaced the bamboo.

Gunpowder was first used to produce firecrackers and fireworks for entertainment. Since militaries tend to have an affinity towards things that explode, they used the technology shortly after. Military use of gunpowder was during the Jin dynasty (1115-1234). They eventually learned how to fire them up in the air towards their targets. This was especially useful, because until then, the best method of getting their low-budget bombs to their enemies was using the person with the best throwing arm.

In the 13th century, gunpowder formulas made their way to Europe and Arabia. The Westerners went all out in developing stronger gunpowder formulas. They built stronger weapons (cannons and muskets) to shoot people with. On the other hand, fireworks became increasingly popular. This appreciation for fireworks was brought to the New World. Supposedly, the first display was set off in 1608 by Captain John Smith in Jamestown. A year after the establishment of America, they celebrated with fireworks. Metals and other additives that create the bright colors were not added until the 1830s by the Italians. 

Fireworks have come a long way from their humble origins. Now, we celebrate Independence Day (or Independence Week) with fireworks, as well as many other occasions. So, have a happy Independence Day everyone. 

May the fireworks ward off the evil spirits haunting you.

Sources:

  1. Davis, T. L., Chao, Yün-ts’ung, & Chao, H. (1943). Chao Hsüeh-min’s Outline of Pyrotechnics: A Contribution to the History of Fireworks. Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences , Vol. 75(No. 4), 95–107.
  2. World Refrigeration Day. (2020, June). Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Refrigeration_Day
  3. Cohen, J. (2019, July). Fireworks’ Vibrant History. History.com. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/fireworks-vibrant-history
  4. History of Fireworks. (2020). American Pyrotechnics Association. Retrieved from https://www.americanpyro.com/history-of-fireworks#:~:text=History%20of%20Fireworks.%20Many%20historians%20believe%20that%20fireworks,of%20the%20hollow%20air%20pockets%20in%20the%20bamboo.
  5. The Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council, & The Office of Chinese Language Council International. (2008). Common Knowledge About Chinese Culture. Hanban, China: Higher Education Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s