Fireworks have become synonymous with celebration. Eruptions of light commemorate Independence Day in the United States, celebrate Bastille Day in France, and illuminate the skies over nearly every major city in the world each New Year’s Eve.
Most historians agree that the Chinese invented fireworks about the tenth century of our Common Era, when Oriental chemists discovered that combining saltpeter (potassium nitrate) with sulfur and charcoal produces an explosive compound. Western explorers, such as Marco Polo, or possibly Arab traders were responsible for bringing this volatile substance to Europe, and by the 14th century, spectacular displays of fireworks were delighting European audiences.
But the powder that provided such a beautiful diversion also diverted the course of European history. Military men used the substance that came to be known as gunpowder to propel lead bullets, explode castle walls, and shatter political powers. “During the European Middle Ages,” states the Encyclopædia Britannica, “fireworks accompanied the spread of military explosives westward, and in Europe the military fireworks expert was pressed into service to conduct pyrotechnic celebrations of victory and peace.”
Meanwhile, the Chinese seemed to have largely ignored the destructive potential of gunpowder. In the 16th century, Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit missionary in China, wrote: “The Chinese are not expert in the use of guns and artillery and make but little use of these in warfare. Saltpeter, however, is used in lavish quantities in making fireworks for display at public games and on festival days. The Chinese take great pleasure in such exhibitions . . . Their skill in the manufacture of fireworks is really extraordinary.”
Secrets of the Spectacle
Early fireworks makers no doubt needed both skill and courage as they developed different displays. They discovered that large granules of gunpowder burn relatively slowly, whereas fine grains burn explosively. Rockets were created by sealing one end of a length of bamboo or paper tube and packing the lower section with large grains of gunpowder. When the gunpowder was ignited, rapidly expanding gases were propelled from the open end of the tube, hurling the projectile into the sky. (This fundamental principle is used today to send astronauts into space.) The top end of the rocket was packed with fine gunpowder so that the projectile would explode, if all went well, when near the apex of its trajectory.
Fireworks have changed little technologically over the centuries. However, there have been some improvements. The Orientals originally knew how to produce only white or gold-colored displays. The Italians added color. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Italians found that when they added potassium chlorate to gunpowder, the mixture burned with enough heat to turn metals into gas, tinting the resulting flame. Today, strontium carbonate is added to produce a red flame. Bright-white flame is produced by titanium, aluminum, and magnesium; blue by copper compounds; green by barium nitrates; and yellow by a mixture containing sodium oxalate.
Computers have added another dimension to fireworks spectaculars. Instead of igniting fireworks by hand, technicians can time their displays to perfection by programming computers to ignite fireworks electrically so that they explode to the rhythm of a musical performance.
A Religious Connection
Fireworks were an integral part of Chinese religious celebrations. The magazine Popular Mechanics explains that fireworks were “invented by the Chinese to chase demons from New Year’s and other ceremonial occasions.” In his book Days and Customs of All Faiths, Howard V. Harper states: “From earliest pagan times people have carried torches and built bonfires on their big religious occasions. What could have been more natural than the addition of the spectacularly colored and self-moving light of fireworks to the festivities.”
Soon after fireworks were embraced by nominal Christians, fireworks makers were assigned a patron saint. The Columbia Encyclopedia states: “[St. Barbara’s] father is said to have shut her up in a tower and then to have killed her for being a Christian. He was struck down by lightning, and, by an extended analogy, St. Barbara became the patroness of makers and users of firearms and fireworks.”
No Expense Spared
Whether for religious or secular celebrations, the public seems to possess an insatiable desire for bigger and better fireworks displays. Describing one Chinese fireworks display in the 16th century, Ricci wrote: “When I was in Nankin I witnessed a pyrotechnic display for the celebration of the first month of the year, which is their great festival, and on this occasion I calculated that they consumed enough powder to carry on a sizable war for a number of years.” Regarding the cost of this display, he said: “They seem to have no regard for expense where fireworks are concerned.”
Little has changed in the intervening centuries. In the year 2000, in just one celebration staged over the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 20 tons of fireworks were set ablaze to entertain a million or more spectators gathered on the harbor foreshores. During the same year, in the United States, $625 million was spent on nearly 157 million pounds [70,000,000 kilograms] of fireworks. Certainly, many cultures continue to be fascinated by fireworks, and it can still be said: “They seem to have no regard for expense where fireworks are concerned.”