Watching magnificent exhibitions of fireworks is the most common tradition for celebrating the day of America’s independence. While the demonstrations themselves mesmerize all who see them, the history and mechanics behind these special explosives is quite fascinating as well!
Even before gunpowder was invented, fireworks originated in China during the Han Dynasty roundabouts of 200 BC, likely as mere sticks of bamboo fed to fire. Because bamboo plants grow as such a quick rate, pockets of air and sap get trapped inside the plant’s segments. The air pockets would expand within the reeds when heated, and eventually explode. Being unaccustomed to the noise, both people and animals were frightened by it at first, and they thought that it might scare away evil spirits too. So bamboo burning became tradition for new years and other special occasions to ensure happiness and prosperity.
Fireworks as a form of art came from Renaissance Italy. Presentational fireworks were first developed for kings as a way to show wealth and power at religious festivals, coronations ceremonies, and weddings. England made them public displays at British amusement parks in the 1730’s. Fireworks in the early Americas were first used to either impress or scare off Native Americans. Then July 4th, 1777 brought the new nation’s first celebration for independence. Though still unsettled in the Revolutionary War, and unsure of the outcome, the fireworks displays instilled hope and patriotism within the American citizens. One hundred years later with trade opened to China, fireworks would be the major import from that part of the Orient. For a long time, orange and white sparks were the only visual effects that could be produced by fireworks. Yet advances in chemistry from Southern Italy in the 1830’s enabled colors of red, green, blue, and yellow to be made and they could appear deeper and brighter.
When lit, a shell either spherical or cylindrical in shape will explode into the beautiful aerial spectacles we know and love. A section of black powder called the lift charge goes off first, sending the shell into the sky. As the shell ascends, a time fuse inside burns towards the burst charge. At the precise altitude, the burst charge – consisting of black powder impregnated on rice hulls – blasts it apart and ignites color pellets on the inside. The shells generally fly up to one hundred feet for every inch in diameter they are, and they can be anywhere from three to twenty four inches in diameter.
While fireworks receive negative attention for all the injury they seem to cause, much of the fuss can be avoided with some good judgement when it comes to purchasing and using consumer fireworks. A few safety tips to mind are to:
- Only buy from legal, reliable dealers
- Check for caution labels and product numbers
- Always follow label instructions
- Never give children any sort of firework, or closely supervise them if you do
- Store them safely and correctly
- Keep spectators at a safe distance
- Use them in an open area
For the Chinese, they were a source of success in life. For Italy, they were a form of expression. For America, fireworks are a show of national pride. Independence Day celebrations wouldn’t be the same without the fireworks display. They’re even mentioned in mentioned in our national anthem when you think about it. “And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there…” Centuries of modification, careful use, and fighting for freedom have helped the masses enjoy these yearly spectacles again and again.