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History of Fireworks

The birthplace of fireworks is generally recognized as China. It is said that a Chinese cook accidently mixed three common kitchen ingredients (black powder): Potassium nitrate or salt petre, sulphur and charcoal and lighted it. The result was colourful flames. The cook also noticed that if the mixture was burned when enclosed in the hollow of a bamboo shoot, there was a tremendous explosion. The first application of this technology was for entertainment. Slowly the theory took roots that this loud sound was perfect to chase away evil spirits and to celebrate weddings, victories in battles, eclipses of moon and religious ceremonies.

Once the recipe for black powder was perfected, they found that it was easily used as rocket fuel, and they made hand carved wooden rockets in the shape of a dgoran, in the sixth century. These rockets shot rocket powered arrows from their mouth, and were used against the Mongol invaders of 1279. The principle behind these rockets is still used in rocket powered fireworks today.

 From China the fireworks moved on to the West, through adventurous explorers. Legend has it that Marco Polo brought this new accidental invention to the West from one of his many trips to China and other eastern countries. Thus the knowledge of making fireworks spread west, through Arabia in the seventh century. The Arabs called the rockets Chinese arrows. 

The earliest recorded use of gunpowder in England, and probably the western world, is by the Franciscan monk Roger Bacon. He was born in Ilminster in Somerset in 1214 and lived, as a master of languages, maths, optics and alchemy to 1294. He recorded his experiments with a mixture which was very inadequate by todays standards but was recognisable as gunpowder. His formula was very low in saltpetre because there was no natural source available, but it contained the other two essential ingredients: charcoal and sulphur.

In 1242 he wrote: "...if you light it you will get thunder and lightening if you know the trick", Fireworks as such probably arrived in the 14th century, brought back from the East by Crusaders, and they rapidly became a form of international entertainment. The first recorded fireworks in England were at the wedding of Henry VII in 1486. They became very popular during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare mentions them and they were so much enjoyed by the Queen herself that she created a "Fire Master of England". James II was so pleased with his coronation display that he knighted his firemaster. King Charles V as well had a great liking for fireworks. He had many 'fireworkers' in his staff. He celebrated all his victories with fireworks. Gradually the royal courts took up fireworks as a favourite form of celebrations and festivities. Fire Masters soon became a much sought after commodity. Many of them were killed or grievously injured as they entertained others with their dangerous profession.

So by the 14th-15th century almost every country had its own version of fireworks. While the Germans used them in battles, the British lighted fireworks in celebrations and the Italians, who were the first to manufacture fireworks in Europe, used them to mark great occasions. Though the credit for invention of fireworks goes to China, Europe surpassed China in pyro-technic development. During the Renaissance, two European schools of pyrotechnic thought emerged: one in Italy and the other at Nuremberg, Germany. The Italian school of pyrotechnics emphasized elaborate fireworks, and the German school stressed scientific advancement. Both schools added significantly to further development of pyrotechnics, and by the mid-17th century fireworks were used for entertainment on an unprecedented scale in Europe, being popular even at resorts and public gardens. Regular fireworks pageants were held where elaborate displays of fireworks were held.


The earliest settlers brought their love of fireworks to the New World, where firings of black powder were used to celebrate holidays and impress the natives. Pranksters in the colony of Rhode Island caused enough problems that in 1731 a ban was established on the mischevious use of fireworks.

By the time of the American Revolution, fireworks had long played a part in celebrating important events. It was natural that not only John Adams, but also many of his countrymen, should think of fireworks when Independence was declared. The very first celebration of Independence Day was in 1777, six years before Americans knew whether the new nation would even survive the war, and fireworks were a part of the revels.

American's spirit of celebration continued to grow and fireworks became more popular than ever. In the late 18th Century, politicans used displays to attract crowds to their speeches.

Untill the 19th century, fireworks lacked a major aestheticly essential characteristic: color. Pyrotechnicians began to use a combination of potassium chlorate and various metallic salts to make brilliant colors. The salts of these metals produce the different colors: strontium burns red; copper makes blue; barium glows green; and sodium, yellow. Magnesium, aluminum, and titanium were found to give off white sparkles or a flash.

In 1892, a 400 year celebration of Columbus landing on America's shores lit up the Brooklyn Bridge. Over one million people witnesses the event which was considered the greatest show ever seen in the Western Hempisphere.

One of the most memorable events in America's history of fireworks displays was the celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, unique because it brought together three of the most famous names in the fireworks industry: George Zambelli of Zambelli Internationale, Inc.; Felix Grucci, Jr. of Fireworks by Grucci, Inc.; and Robert Souza of Pyro Spectaculars, Inc. 

Known as fierce competitors, they had never before worked together. Yet for this event, held July 4, 1986, the three worked together closely for nearly a year planning and designing the largest and most magnificent display in the world in honor of Independence Day and Miss Liberty's 100th Anniversary. This show incorporated 22,000 aerial fireworks, launched from 30 barges and other vantage points. An additional 18,000 set pieces, ground pictures, fountains and low displays were seen, stretching rom the East River, around the tip of Manhattan, up into the Hudson River and around the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The production required an estimated 220 miles of wires, 777,000 pounds of mortar tubes, through which sky rockets and aerial bombs were launched, and a staff of 100 pyrotechnicans on site.

Fireworks can be seen throughout the year in communities large and small. Fireworks displays add spectacular finishing touches to many grand events. However beautiful and enchanting they may be fireworks are not devoid of dangers. Fireworks have always been dangerous and have caused and continue to cause serious and tragic accidents. Efforts to control the dangers and ill effects of fireworks began as early as the late 19th century. In 1890 a 'Society for Suppression of Unnecessary Noise' was formed.

Awareness campaigns were launched so that fatalities and injuries caused by fireworks could be brought down. We too can ensure that we do not become a statistic by falling prey to the perils of fireworks. It is certainly not difficult. All mishaps due to fireworks occur as a result of carelessness, negligence and ignorance. Simple precautions can help avoid these mishaps. Just follow the simple tips in the next article on fireworks safety for a fun filled SAFE celebration.



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