The history of fireworks dates back long before there ever was an America, a fourth of July or even gunpowder. It is believed that the very first firecrackers were born during the Han Dynasty in China in the year 200 BC. They were actually chunks of green bamboo, which might have been thrown onto a fire when dry fuel ran short. The rods sizzled, blackened and exploded, scaring the hell out of nearby people and animals. Bursting bamboo or "pao chuk" as the Chinese called it, was used to commemorate weddings, coronations and accidental births for the next thousand or so years.
Some enterprising anonymous thinker got the idea to utilize the terrifying exploding sounds to ward off evil spirits, especially one called Nian, whom the Chinese believed ate crops and people when no one was looking (and not necessarily in that order). It soon became customary to throw the green bamboo onto a fire during the Lunar New Year in order to ensure happiness, prosperity and longevity for the remainder of the year.
With the discovery of gunpowder during the Sui and Tang dynasties (600-900AD), firecrackers began to change. Stiff paper tubes were filled with gunpowder, which replaced the bulky bamboo stems and fuses made from tissue paper with a trail of gunpowder were inserted inside. Around 1200 AD a variation of the firecracker called a "ground rat" was developed. It was a paper firecracker that was open on one end. Instead of exploding, the burning gas shot out of the opening and propelled the "rat" randomly on the ground. Occasionally they would fly in the air momentarily, sparking the idea (forgive the pun) to find a way to straighten their flight path. This led to the creation of the first rockets.
News of gunpowder spread throughout Europe via the mouths of Franciscan and Dominican friars and Marco Polo, who, in 1292 brought firecrackers along with noodles and other goodies from the Orient to Italy. During the Renaissance (1400-1500) Italians developed fireworks into a true art form. Advances in metallurgy permitted the creation of bursts of gold and silver sparks into the sky. The most spectacular fireworks displays, however were still those made at ground level. The discovery of a slower burning gunpowder mix would give off showers of colorful sparks resembling water spewing from a fountain. The idea of controlled fire was enthralling, and kings saw no more formidable way to parade their wealth and their power before a fascinated populace.
Roger Bacon, Franciscan monk and professor at Oxford University, became one of the first Europeans to study gunpowder and write about it. He knew that saltpeter was the driving force behind the firecrackers terrifying noise. Realizing gunpowder's deadly potential for revolutionizing warfare, he discovered a way to purify the natural saltpeter, rendering a more powerful gunpowder. The first recorded fireworks display in England celebrated the wedding of Henry VII in 1487. Shakespeare mentions them in several of his plays, and Elizabeth I enjoyed them so much that she appointed a "Fire Master of England." James II was so delighted with his coronation exhibition that he knighted (not ignited) his "Firemaster." Charles VI was so taken by the effects of fireworks that his army contained "fireworkers" whose sole function was to stage victory displays.
The firecrackers path to America was slow and arduous, coming with the first settlers. Fireworks were used for celebrations in the colonies as well as to impress or scare off native Americans, who werent too happy about the Age of Discovery (or being discovered). The fascination with the noise and color of fireworks only increased with the passage of time. Pranksters in the colony of Rhode Island caused enough problems that in 1731 a ban was established on the mischievous use of fireworks.
The very first Fourth of July celebration was in 1777, one year after the signing of The Declaration of Independence. Beautiful fireworks instilled a sense of hope and patriotism in the citizens of the young nation whose future was yet uncertain. John Adams, in a letter to his wife on July 3, 1776, after the Continental Congress had decided to proclaim the American colonies independent from England, proclaimed: "The day
ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade
bonfires and illuminations from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward evermore." In 1789, George Washingtons inauguration was marked by a beautiful exhibition of fireworks.
Less than a century later, when trade relations between the United States and China were established, Americans began to import firecrackers from China. With Americas growing self-confidence, fireworks became more popular than ever. For nearly 1,000 years, the only colors that could be produced were the orange flash sparks from black powder, and white sparks from metal powders. In the 1830s in southern Italy, scientific advancements in the field of chemistry enabled pyro-technicians (the old firemasters) to create reds, greens, blues and yellows by adding both a metallic salt and a chlorinated powder to the firework composition.
In 1892 a 400-year celebration of Columbus landing on our shores lit up the Brooklyn Bridge. At the time, it was considered the most spectacular show ever seen and over one million people witnessed the event. There have been many magnificent displays, including the 1976 bicentennial, the 1983 Brooklyn Bridge Centennial, Macys extravaganzas (even surpassing their cheap brochures), presidential inaugurations and many Independence Day celebrations. But all fireworks must stand in shadow next to the 1986 international display on the fourth of July that marked the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. The fireworks came from many different countries, including China, Japan, Germany, Italy, England, France and others. Many were developed especially for the occasion and had never been seen anywhere in the world before.
Fireworks have been associated with the dream of America since its inception. They will always play a part in the amazing legacy of this land like no other on the face on the earth.
Happy Fourth of July to All!
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