Along with cookouts and hotdogs, fireworks are part of Fourth of July festivities. Fireworks made of saltpeter (potassium nitrate), sulfur, and charcoal, were first used in China in the ninth century A.D.
The Chinese invented gunpowder about 2000 years ago. A Chinese monk named Li Tian produced firecrackers later. The first firecrackers were bamboo shoots filled with gunpowder which were exploded at the commencement of the New Year to scare away evil spirits. The Chinese still celebrate the invention of the firecracker every April 18 by offering sacrifices to Li Tian.
Marco Polo is often given credit for bringing gunpowder and therefore the ability to make fireworks to Europe but that is unlikely. Gunpowder probably traveled the Silk Road from China to the Moslem world far earlier than Marco Polo’s trip in the late 1200s. Italians, though, were the first Europeans who used gunpowder to manufacture fireworks. They turned fireworks displays into art forms, developing shells that launched into the sky and exploded into a fountain of color. While the Italians were concentrating of the art of the fireworks, Germans were advancing the science of fireworks.
For nearly 2,000 years, the only colored fireworks were yellows and oranges, which were produced by adding steel and charcoal. In the 19th Century, Italian researchers added metallic salt and a chlorinated powder to the firework composition to produce various colors. Adding barium made green fireworks. Copper added a blue color. Red was obtained by adding strontium. Fireworks were made brighter by adding potassium chlorate, pure magnesium and aluminum.
A love of fireworks quickly spread around the world. Fireworks were so popular in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, that she created a position called “Fire Master of England.” The earliest settlers brought their enthusiasm for fireworks to the United States. Fireworks were used to celebrate important events in America long before the Revolutionary War.
The manufacturing of most fireworks has changed very little throughout the years. Now though, research is being done to make fireworks with less smoke and noise. In 2004, The Walt Disney Company, the world’s leading consumer of fireworks, replaced gunpowder with compressed air in the fireworks displays in California.
China, the birthplace of fireworks, is still the largest manufacturer in the world today.