According to legend, 2,000 years ago, a cook working in a Chinese field kitchen happened to mix together charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter, all common kitchen items at the time, which burned unlike any other substance. When compressed inside the enclosure provided through a bamboo tube, the mixture exploded. This man had created the world’s first firework.
Whether or not this tale actually occurred is up for debate, but it clear that fireworks have had an extensive history. Today, these celebratory sky explosions are common throughout the globe. Used for the Fourth of July in the United States, Guy Fawkes Day in the United Kingdom, Diwali in India, Chinese New Year, and many other public events, fireworks have become a symbol for certain holidays. Throughout the past millennia, fireworks have continuously served this purpose as they spread throughout the globe.
The Invention of Fireworks in China
Regardless of the existence of the fabled cook, it is known that sometime between 600 and 900 CE, Chinese alchemists, likely in an attempt to create an elixir of immortality, had possessed the ability to craft black powder through the charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter combination. Soon thereafter, it became common for people to use this explosive powder in bamboo shoots, and eventually, paper tubes.
Li Tian, a monk who lived near the city of Liu Yang in Hunan Province during the Song dynasty (960-1279) is responsible for the invention of these bamboo-based firecrackers, which were traditionally set off during the commencement of the New Year to ward off evil spirits. Since the Chinese had been throwing plain bamboo shoots into fires to create loud sounds for centuries by this point, the addition of black powder only enhanced the tradition.
As per their purpose of warding off unwanted spirits, the early fireworks were intended mainly to make loud noises, not for creating illuminating visuals in the sky. However, after years of use for primarily celebratory events, the Chinese began to find other uses for their firecrackers, specifically, war. For the military, using the gunpowder combustion for propulsion provided a massive advantage that could crush opposing forces.
While facing off against Mongol invaders in 1279, the Chinese shot rocket-powered arrows and made use of dragon-shaped wooden launchers that hurled targeted explosives. Fireworks masters used this same knowledge outside of battle to create the world’s first aerial fireworks displays.
Origin of Fireworks in Europe
After his voyages in the Thirteenth Century, during the time that aerial fireworks first appeared in China, Marco Polo brought black powder back to Europe (it is also possible that some holy warriors during the crusades returned home with black powder as well). Once in Europe, black powder was used primarily for warfare, for rockets, cannons, and the first guns, hence it becoming known as gunpowder. However, the Europeans soon made use of fireworks, with an immense fascination placed on aerial light shows.
Fireworks became increasingly popular for military victories, religious ceremonies, and general celebrations, and efforts were made to improve upon pyotechnic technology during the Renaissance. European rulers used the exploding lights as a way to enchant their subjects and illuminate their castles. The first recorded example of this was in 1486, on Henry VII’s wedding day. Other notable royal firework displays include regular displays at Versailles and a five-hour pyrotechnic show to mark the birth of the son of Russian Czar Peter the Great.
England quickly became obsessed with fireworks, especially during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who created the position of “Fire Master of England”. At the time, fire masters were professional fireworks experts who put on public shows. Their assistants, known as “green men” because they wore caps of leaves to protect their heads from pyrotechnic sparks, would entertain the crowds as they prepared the displays. Unfortunately, their green caps were often not enough to protect them from frequent fatal accidents.
In addition, while the subcontinent already had access to fireworks for centuries, the British interest in fireworks also led to greater incorporation of pyrotechnic displays at large Indian gatherings and celebrations. Interestingly, it was rumored for some time that fireworks were actually invented in India, and not in China, but this theory has been debunked.
Origin of Fireworks on the Fourth of July
From the British love of fireworks, the light shows quickly made their way to the Americas. Captain John Smith allegedly set off the first American firework display in Jamestown in 1608. By the time of the American Revolution, fireworks had long been common practice for celebrations. So, it should be no surprise that only a few days prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, in reference to the ideal American Independence Day, John Adams wrote in a letter to his wife:
“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival . . . it ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade . . . bonfires and illuminations [common terms for fireworks at the time] from one end of this continent to the other, from this day forward forevermore.”
One year later, on July 4, 1777, fireworks lit up the Philadelphia night sky in a display meant to lift spirits, as the Revolutionary War that would wage on for another six years. Every subsequent Independence Day has carried on this tradition.
A major development in the history of fireworks, especially for those in the U.S. and China, occurred almost two hundred years after this time. In 1972, after President Nixon normalized American relations with China, U.S. importers were given the ability to directly interact with Chinese companies, which allowed for immense growth of the fireworks industry.
Today, the Liu Yang region of Hunan Province in China, the very same place where Li Tian invented the first firecracker, remains as the world’s greatest producer of fireworks. Here, in the cradle of pyrotechnics, these aerial displays are being manufactured for use in celebrations throughout the world.
Fireworks Safety Standards
There are many inherent dangers that come from shooting explosives into the sky for the public’s entertainment. Guidelines for the safe use and manufacturing of fireworks are generally covered by national organizations. For example, in the United States, fireworks standards are written and published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
During certain celebratory holidays, the risk of injury from fireworks is incredibly heightened. According to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSP), there were 10,500 injuries related to fireworks in the U.S. in 2014, 7,000 of which occurred between June 20 and July 20.
Standards help to manage the safety of fireworks in the modern age, preventing disaster during the intended cheerful time of their use. On the manufacturing side, NFPA 1124-2013, the Code for Manufacturing, Transportation, Storage, and Retail Sale of Fireworks and Pyrotechnic Articles addresses the production of fireworks before they are put on for display to assure that they work as anticipated, while NFPA 1123-2014 – Code for Fireworks Display, 2014 Edition assists those who are putting on a public fireworks display.
For Further Reading: Fireworks Safety Standards