The Long and Explosive History of Fireworks

history of fireworks
Crash! Boom! Oh Jesus, run! Ah, the sounds of a fine fireworks display! (The latter interjection is ideally only heard at the amateur pyrotechnics level, for the record.) Fireworks play an integral role in all sorts of celebrations around the globe, from America’s Independence Day to India’s Diwali festival to Japan’s hundreds of annual summertime fireworks displays to each and every night of the year near a Disney theme park. (It’s no surprise that the Walt Disney Company consumes more fireworks than any other institution in America.)

Fireworks are common in the modern era, but they’re hardly a modern invention. No, in fact the history of fireworks stretches back more than 64 million years! No, wait… that’s dinosaurs. The history of the firework reaches back about 1,200 years.

The consensus among historians is that black powder (also known as, but not entirely accurately 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, as evidenced by the Napoleonic Wars, WWI, and, let’s say, modern Syria. While the blend of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulfur that 9th Century Chinese alchemists devised has led to untold millions of deaths and zero known cases of immortality, it also paved the way for the development of fireworks, which would dazzle, charm, and occasionally terrify people for centuries to come.

explosive history of fireworks 2

The earliest Chinese fireworks consisted primarily of basic firecrackers and simple rockets; these were devised by packing black powder into a bamboo tube and sealing both ends or by packing a tube of bamboo and leaving one end open, respectively. Sometimes early fireworks were simply tossed into a fire, at other times they were lit with a fuse. Regardless of the type of incendiary and the method of its combustion, the result was usually the same: a big, loud bang that was orangey-yellow in color.

Black powder made its way to Europe along the ever-busier trade routes of the 12th and 13th Centuries. Some historians claim Marco Polo brought the technology west, while others credit Arab traders. While initially this new explosive elixir was used primarily for martial purposes (cannons and muskets, e.g), soon enough Europeans were enjoying fireworks for recreational purposes as well. We have specific accounts of awe-inspiring pyrotechnic displays at the late 15th Century wedding of Henry VIII, for example, and by the 1600s a man could make a living as a “firemaster” in charge of fireworks displays designed for major celebrations.

Fireworks became forever entwined with the celebration of America’s Independence Day right from day one, as it were. The first 4th of July celebration that mattered as far as an American is concerned was 7/4/1777, the date exactly one year after the Declaration of Independence was signed. (Or at least the day we observe as such — the signatory process actually took a few days.) The fireworks of that first Independence Day were safer and more impressive than the early explosives seen in China those many hundreds of years ago, but they were still limited to orange and yellow flames and sparks.

explosive history of fireworks 3

Fireworks with color were developed in the early years of the 19th Century and were made widely available in the 1830s. That’s thanks to the many scientific advances that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. Italian scientists are credited as being the first to add other elements and blends of materials to the incendiary powder used in fireworks, the results being new dazzling colors and crackling displays. Substances such as aluminum, magnesium, barium, and more could create everything from blue to red to green flames and sparks.

Modern professional firework displays have grown ever larger and more impressive even as firework sales and use have become ever more restricted, at least in America. (Home of the free indeed, right? Right.) The current record for the largest firework display of all time was set in the Norwegian town of Søgne in late 2014. During an hour and a half long display, more than half a million individual fireworks were detonated, launched, or blasted out showers of sparks.

Boom.

Food & Drink

A Brief History of Chili with Chef-Inspired Recipes: Texas v. North Carolina

Everyone has an opinion about chili, so we got a few top chefs from North Carolina and Texas to offer up their favorite chili recipes. Which is your favorite?
Travel

10 Reasons to Visit Norway in 2019

The picturesque ruggedness of Norway is just part of the appeal of what may arguably be one of the most beautiful countries on the planet.
Living

Old Meets New in a Unique Way in Chicago’s Cortez House

Cortez House is refreshingly modern but with nods to the building’s past … including the original meat cooler.
Travel

Celebrate Your Single-ness This Valentine’s Day with a Cheap Vacation

Contiki is looking to make solo celebrations even better with deeply discounted travel packages for Singles Awareness Day.
Culture

The Best Podcasts to Listen to On Your Commute

Each episode is short, sweet, and perfect for your time in the car, bus, train, or bike.
Culture

Treat Yourself to a Glass of Bourbon and a Pappy Van Winkle Barrel-Fermented Cigar

No, they didn't just dip cigars in booze and let dry. Though now that you mention it ...
Culture

The Lady-Approved List of Valentine’s Day Gift Ideas for Her

Before you buy her a bottle of red wine, a box of chocolates, and lingerie, read this.
Culture

What Is a Float Tank? A Beginner’s Guide to Flotation Therapy

Flotation therapy can help hormone regulation, stress and pain relief, and sleep quality. But how does all this happen through floating on your back in a windowless tank of water?
Culture

7 Best Finance Apps for Budgeting, Money-Saving, Investments, and More

Stop stressing out and get the most out of your precious cash.
Culture

19 Classic Books Every Man Should Read (or Re-Read) in 2019

Make 2019 one for the books. Here's your reading list for the rest of the year.
Culture

9 Best Crime Documentaries on Netflix Right Now

If you're like the rest of the country, you're probably obsessed with true crime right now. Here are the best documentaries to get your fix.
Culture

10 Best History Podcasts for Learning About Everything From Pirates to Presidents

Everything has a history, whether it’s a country, a famous figure, a piece of art, or a popular snack food.
Culture

Never Suffer from Post-Workout Soreness Again with the Theragun G3Pro

Theragun's latest the Theragun G3PRO was designed to help alleviate sore muscles and promote faster recover in everyone from professional athletes to your grandma after her PT appointment.