Now that the Fourth of July is only a day away many people are anticipating seeing firework shows. Fireworks are a staple of the 4th of July holiday, a tradition that harks back to 1776. Although fireworks are frequently associated with the 4th of July, and subsequently all-things-American, their history actually goes back much further than the 18th century and their roots are Chinese, not American.
It is estimated that fireworks were created in China during the Han Dynasty which reigned in 200 B.C. This is particularly remarkable because that time period was long before gunpowder (the substance that fueled the fireworks of 1776) was invented! The first fireworks were more akin to small firecrackers that are believed to have been made out of chunks of bamboo that were thrown into a fire when dry fuel (like leaves) was in short supply. When the bamboo chunks were placed in the fire they sizzled, blackened, and then exploded with a BOOM. The loud sound frightened both people and animals—and the Chinese assumed that it would also be enough to scare away evil spirits called “Nian” who supposedly ate crops and people. Hence, the Chinese tradition of throwing bamboo into the fire during the Lunar New Year was born. Over time the firework tradition extended to other occasions like weddings and births.
Between 600 and 900 A.D., during the Sui and Tang Dynasties, the Chinese invented gunpowder—most likely by accident when they were, ironically, attempting to create an elixir of life. History claims that the first batch of gunpowder exploded while being cooked over a fire! It burned the alchemists who were creating it and even burnt down the shack they were working in. Despite its obvious dangers, it also had potential as a weapon—and for fireworks. Thus, the Chinese developed the dangerous substance further. It was soon discovered that if gunpowder (which was initially called “fire chemical” or “fire drug”) was put in tubes of bamboo and thrown in a fire it would blast the tubes apart and create a bright flash—thus, a newer and better firecracker was born.
As trade between China and the Western world opened up Europeans discovered fireworks. By the 16th and 17th centuries fireworks were a feature at some posh English parties. At these events fireworks were used as they are today—purely as a means of entertainment, not weaponry. The fireworks that are presently used by civilians are often in the shape of rockets. This design is largely a 20th century creation when militaries designed “guidance fins” for fireworks that would straighten their flight paths right into the air. These were the first “rocket fireworks” and the first purely aerial fireworks that are meant to be exploded only after they are many feet in the air.
Fireworks have a long and interesting history and, every year, they are improved and made to look even more spectacular. Until this day, China remains one of the top producers of fireworks.