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crowd watching exploded fireworks

Technology Throwback Thursday: Fireworks through time

July 09, 2015
By Alexander Lucas

Fireworks are the signature event of the July Fourth holiday in the United States. They also frequently accompany New Year’s celebrations around the world. But how did fireworks come about and why are they used for Independence Day?

Exploding bamboo

The first objects we can identify as firecrackers were created around 200 B.C. in China. The story is that certain chemicals inside of closed bamboo containers exploded over heat, producing a large bang. In fact, the literal translation for the Chinese word for firecracker is “exploding bamboo.”

Since the sound of firecrackers scared humans and animals so much, the Chinese figured that evil spirits would be frightened as well. In Chinese culture, fireworks were and are still used to celebrate the new year, births, deaths, weddings and coronations.

During the Tang dynasty, sometime between the seventh and ninth centuries, gunpowder fireworks were first discovered but really exploded during the Song dynasty (960–1279).

Interestingly, the discovery of fireworks in China predated their military use. Once fireworks and gunpowder were used for warfare, China attempted to keep the secrets of gunpowder hidden. But by this time knowledge of gunpowder had already spread along the Silk Road to the Middle East.

Italian innovation

By the end of the 13th century, fireworks had made their way into Europe. Francis Bacon had divined the formula for gunpowder by the mid-13th century, though he attempted to keep it secret by writing in code. Marco Polo also brought back firecrackers in 1295 when he returned to Venice from China.

Soon after Polo’s return, around 1376, Venice began experimenting with hollow shells filled with gunpowder for use in their cannons. By the mid-15th century, Italians had also created aerial shells for fireworks, using black powder for lift. Using mortar-driven shells, fireworks could achieve more accurate placement and higher altitudes than previous rocket-propelled models.

Italian pyrotechnicians also improved fireworks in another way. Through the 18th century all fireworks tended to be white or orange. In 1830, Italian firework makers experimented with metallic salts and began creating additional colors like red, green and yellow. While most of the rainbow can be created with these methods, the hardest color to recreate is blue.

Rockets red glare

It is not particularly surprising that fireworks became a symbol of Independence Day in the United States. For centuries fireworks had been used at celebrations of coronations and treaty signings. The first fireworks had traveled over to the New World in the 1600s. The Chinoiserie movement in art, or Chinese influence, had reached its peak in the mid-1700s in Europe.

So when was the first known celebration of Independence Day using fireworks?

1777. The year after the Declaration of Independence was signed, Philadelphia shot off 13 fireworks for each of the new colonies. Fireworks have played a part in the annual celebration ever since. Even the national anthem paints a picture of fireworks, though Francis Scott Key was referencing the cannon attack on Fort McHenry.

As a final interesting fact, Disney is often cited as the largest consumer of fireworks in North America, spending an estimated $45–50 million a year. They have been doing shows since 1956 but now do nightly shows and over 11,000 performances a year.

Hope everyone had a fun and safe holiday. If you enjoy classical music, be sure to take a listen to Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. If you have any fun fireworks stories, please comment below.  Also check out some of our other recent Technology Throwback stories:

A self-styled storyteller, Alexander Lucas loves to share his vast knowledge of tech, innovation and design trivia. TEKsystems’ resident video designer is also an avid history buff and writes about technology innovation through time.

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