Fireworks are the ultimate mark of celebrations. They are a type of explosive pyrotechnic devices that are used during celebrations, festivals, and holidays. Fireworks are manufactured and designed to burn in many colors and to produce smoke, light, noise, and floating materials like confetti. Today’s amazing firework displays can feel pretty advanced, but fireworks have actually been around for thousands of years.
It is considered that fireworks originated in China to scare and ward off evil spirits during the Han Dynasty era (206 BC-220 AD). In that era, people threw bamboo stems into a fire to produce a loud, explosive noise. The stem crackled and burnt in the fire, and later burst with a giant explosion.
This was a thrilling experience for the Chinese. They firmly believed in the existence of ghosts and evil spirits and believed that this explosion sufficient enough to frighten those spirits off. Warding off evil spirits was a sign of joy, and so fireworks became associated with celebrations. From then on, the Chinese traditionalized this idea of ‘bursting bamboos’ to ward off spirits and ghosts every year.
Later on, this activity formed a part of celebratory events, such as parties, weddings, New Year’s Eve, etc. This continued for quite some time until the discovery of the ‘gunpowder’.
Who Invented Fireworks? – Legends and Stories
There is confusion on the time of fireworks discovery as well as who invented them. Some sources state that fireworks were discovered some 2,000 years ago, while others place the discovery sometime during the Song Dynasty era (960-1279 CE). One thing is for certain; they were invented in China.
The Accidental Invention
According to Chinese legend, a cook was responsible for the invention of fireworks. He accidently mixed three ingredients, i.e. sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate, and derived a flaky, black concoction. When this mix was set on fire, it exploded and produced a stunning range of colors. Experiments that were performed later revealed that the same mixture exploded with a very loud bang when put in a bamboo shoot and ignited.
Many stories from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) attribute the invention of early fireworks to Li Tian of Liuyang, a Chinese monk living in the Hunan Province. According to another legend, the east Hunan Province suffered from droughts and floods every year during the Zhenguan period in the Tang Dynasty. Li Tian dispelled the evil spirit that was supposedly causing the draughts and floods by setting off his fireworks in the inflicted area. Afterwards, the residents of the Hunan Province lived in prosperity and peace.
Inspired by this achievement, the citizens of Liuyang named Li Tian the ‘Founder of Crackers’. Furthermore, they also built a temple in the monk’s name and began worshiping him. Even today, the Chinese honor him by offering sacrifices on the 18th of April every year.
Gunpowder-filled Bamboo Tubes
The Chinese continued to experiment with the gunpowder-filled bamboo tubes. They attached these tubes to long arrows and then launched them from a stand of bamboo sticks. When ignited, these tubes produced a thrust and launched themselves with great force. This was how the rocket was invented. The Chinese used the rocket in the 13th century during the Mongol conquest to fight off the invaders. In this way, gunpowder found its applications in warfare.
Later, they used paper tubes rather than bamboo stems to make firecrackers. Small and stiff paper tubes were stuffed with gunpowder and a fuse was inserted in each firecracker. The fuse ignited the gunpowder when it was lit, hence causing the tube to explode. Now, pallets are also used to hold the firecrackers together. In this way, when one firecracker is set off or ignited, it lights all the others as well, hence producing a series of amazing fireworks in succession. Today, Chinese fireworks are exported around the world.
Fireworks Around the World
The Chinese fireworks discovery soon got noticed by the world travelers and spread in other regions. It is believed that the knowledge of gunpowder spread to the Middle East from China. The Arabs referred to rockets as ‘Chinese Arrows’, fireworks as ‘Chinese Flowers’, and potassium nitrate as ‘Chinese Snow’ owing to the fact that they were Chinese inventions.
Fireworks in Europe
While some sources credit Marco Polo for introducing fireworks and gunpowder in Europe during the 13th century, there are others that state that the crusaders were responsible for it. While manufacturing fireworks for entertainment, the Europeans were also interested in displaying the potential of gunpowder in warfare. Therefore, gunpowder was used in rockets, canons, and guns.
The two European countries that surpassed others in the optimal use of gunpowder were Germany and Italy. The Italian were the first Europeans to use it for manufacturing fireworks. They pioneered the design of aerial shells. Germany on the other hand, delved deeper into the scientific aspect and manufactured technically advanced firecrackers.
Fireworks in England
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603 AD), fireworks gained great popularity in England. Some of Shakespeare’s works mention that the Queen was so impressed and enchanted with fireworks that she created a new position in her palace called the ‘Fire Master of England’.
Fireworks in America
It was the American Independence Day i.e. 4th of July, 1777 when the firework displays were used for the first time for celebration in America. There was also an elaborate display of fireworks during the inauguration ceremony of George Washington as the first President of USA. Even today, fireworks are popular in America and these displays form a part of many festive events, such as the New Year.
The simple discovery of fireworks has shaped the history of mankind in a way that is unlike any other invention. Accidental or not, this discovery quickly spread to different societies and cultures around the world and became an integral part of celebrations, joyous occasions, and victories. While the exact date of their invention remains a mystery, fireworks have continuously served this purpose around the globe throughout the past millennia. They have become a symbol for certain public events and holidays.