July 1, 2014 11:00 am

As America celebrates another year of independence with fireworks displays across the nation, it is interesting to note that their original use was in New Year’s celebrations. Who invented fireworks and how did this colorful and explosive entertainment come into being?

Cooking with Fire

Chinese legend tells of a cook who accidentally spilled the flavoring ingredient saltpeter into a cooking flame, producing a colorful flame. Saltpeter is an ingredient in gunpowder, which was invented about 2,000 years ago. Centuries later, a Chinese monk named Li Tian first produced exploding firecrackers by filling bamboo shoots with gunpowder. They were exploded during New Year’s celebrations to scare away evil spirits. The lights and colors were simply an added effect. By the 15th Century, exploding fireworks were part of other celebrations, including military victories and weddings.

Rockets’ Red Glare

Another one of these ancient Chinese inventions, gunpowder, was used for more than celebrations, producing hand-carved wooden rockets shaped like dragons to shoot propulsion-powered arrows at invading Mongol armies in 1279. Explorers to this knowledge home with them, with Marco Polo credited for introducing gunpowder to Europe in the 13th Century. Arabians were believed to have captured the technology from China at about the same time. Pyrotechnics, the science of firework creation, became a profession in China, with more complex and colorful creations being continuously developed. They were known throughout the world as “Chinese Flowers.” Over the centuries, displays became bigger and bolder.

New World Display

Settlers brought fireworks to North America I the 1600s, where they were used to impress (and sometimes acre off) Native Americans. The first July 4th celebration, which occurred after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, featured a dazzling display of fireworks that instilled a sense of hope in the new American citizens.

True Colors

Modern fireworks contain many of the same features and ingredients of their ancient predecessors though now contain colors unavailable in the past. In the 19th Century, Italian science enabled pyrotechnicians to create reds, greens, blues, and yellow through a combination of metallic salts and a chlorine composition.

The Wonderful World of Disney

Disneyland began the use of compressed air to launch fireworks in 2004, replacing gunpowder, an also set the explosions using timers, which allowed the firework display to be synchronized to music. This also reduced smoke and fumes from big displays.

Now that you know who invented fireworks, join us this Independence Day in celebrating not only our nation’s history but also the history of the amazing and wondrous firecracker. Happy 4th of July, from our family to yours.

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