THE STORY OF FIREWORKS
It is widely believed that ‘gunpowder’ originated in ancient China, around the 8th or 9th century CE.
It is thought that the first natural "firecrackers" were bamboo canes that exploded when thrown in a fire because of the overheating of the hollow air pockets in the bamboo.
The Chinese believed these explosions would ward off evil spirits.
No one knows when or how but legend has it that a Chinese alchemist mixed potassium nitrate, sulphur and charcoal to produce a black, flaky powder – the first “gunpowder”. Others believe it might have been a chance discovery when cooking over a charcoal fire. It is known that naturally occurring potassium nitrate was often used as a meat preservative and that sulphur could have been present as an impurity.
The resulting crackles and pops would certainly have startled the unsuspecting cooks!
Once formulated correctly this powder was poured into hallowed out bamboo sticks to create the first man made firecrackers.
These quickly developed into instruments of war, with the Chinese reputedly using them to fire live rats into enemy lines, causing horses to bolt and spreading terror among soldiers.
Gunpowder made its way to Europe in the 13th century, brought by travellers like Marco Polo. A German monk, Berthold Schwarz, is credited with refining the formula, the proportion of Potassium Nitrate, Sulphur and Charcoal, that is still used today.
The famous 14th century English scholar and scientist Roger Bacon was so alarmed by the potential of gunpowder to create great harm and damage that he wrote its formula in secret code lest it fell into the wrong hands. 'If you know the formula it will create thunder and lightning' he wrote.
By the 14th century conventional warfare with bows and arrows was being transformed with the introduction of rudimentary cannons, as recorded in battles like Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415).
By the 15th century gunpowder was also being used for entertainment in religious festivals and other public events. The Italians were the first Europeans to manufacture fireworks and European rulers were especially fond of the use of fireworks to “enchant their subjects and illuminate their castles on important occasions.”
Early U.S. settlers brought their love of fireworks with them to the New World and fireworks were part of the very first Independence Day – a tradition that continues every 4th of July.
In England it's November 5th that we mark with fireworks, originally as a celebration of the foiling of a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament with 36 barrels of gunpowder! One of the ringleaders, Guy Fawkes, who was executed for his role, has the unenviable distinction of having his name forever associated with the event we call Guy Fawkes Night.
In France Bastille Day (July 14th) is celebrated with fireworks and throughout the rest of the world hardly a major event passes without fireworks. They are truly the symbol of celebration.