Every 4th of July, millions of people gather at parks, rivers and lakes, to “ooh” and “ahh” as blazing sparks in a rainbow of colors light up the sky.
Fireworks are synonymous with Independence Day - but do you know why?
To understand the history of pyrotechnic entertainment, it helps to know a little about how fireworks developed over time.
Who Invented Fireworks?
The Chinese are credited with inventing fireworks thousands of years ago, but they weren’t the fireworks people are familiar with today.
The first “fireworks'' were bamboo stalks, which exploded when placed on a fire. Hundreds of years later, after a Chinese alchemist created gunpowder, this explosive tendency came in handy. Bamboo poles were packed with gunpowder, thrown onto a fire and - boom!
Still, this incendiary was really more of a firecracker than the fireworks we’re used to seeing.
Once the military realized the advantages of gunpowder as a weapon, it began creating rocket cannons to blast at their enemies, notes the Smithsonian.
By the 1600s, fireworks were being used for entertainment as well as battle. Unlike today, however, firework displays were only one color - a yellowy-orange. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1830s that Italian chemists discovered they could create color variations by adding different metals and minerals to the gunpowder.
Modern fireworks were born.
Tradition of Fireworks
Gunpowder plays a significant role in British history. American colonists, with their British heritage, knew the story of Guy Fawkes and the foiled Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament. For colonists familiar with the tradition of marking Guy Fawkes Day by setting off fireworks, it seemed only natural to incorporate fireworks in other celebrations.
In fact, John Adams predicted as much, notes the American Pyrotechnic Association. After joining the Second Continental Congress in voting for American independence, he wrote to his wife Abigail that the day would be remembered “with pomp, parade ....bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”
True to form, Philadelphia and Boston both organized celebrations that included fireworks displays to commemorate the first anniversary of Independence Day on July 4, 1777.
The Independence Day holiday in the United States is not the only celebration marked with fireworks. Fireworks are a traditional part of national holidays in many countries, such as Bastille Day in France.
Many cities around the world greet the New Year with fireworks. Sydney, Australia, has one of the most famous New Year’s Eve fireworks displays. Chinese New Year traditions also include firecrackers and fireworks.
Fireworks are a favorite element of Olympic ceremonies and many other sporting events. In fact, organizers in Louisville, Kentucky, say the Thunder Over Louisville fireworks event that opens the Kentucky Derby Festival is nearly as popular as the derby itself!
The Art of Pyrotechnics
A lot goes into designing a fireworks display. In some families, the skill and art of pyrotechnics has been passed down for generations. Around the world, competitions challenge the best of the best in the pyrotechnic industry to create increasingly spectacular fireworks displays, to the amazement and delight of spectators.
A few fireworks competitions and festivals around North America include Sky Wars in Wright City, Missouri; Fire Up the Night, in Cincinnati, Ohio; GlobalFest International Fireworks Festival in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and the Montreal Fireworks Festival, Quebec, Canada.
In recent years, more attention has focused on the difficulties some veteran soldiers experience over firework explosions. As an article by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs explains, the sounds of fireworks may cause veterans to re-experience the intense fear and anxiety they felt in combat.
In addition, some pet owners dread 4th of July fireworks and the days leading up to the holiday. The random cracks and whistles from firecrackers and bottle rockets can terrify our furry friends.
Many members of the community now urge compassion toward combat veterans, skittish pets and wildlife by asking that people go to see a professional fireworks show and not try to recreate one in their own backyards.
Light Up Your Fourth
You don’t need fireworks to light up your 4th of July! Deck your house with red, white and blue string lights, window silhouettes and other patriotic decorations to get into the spirit of the holiday.
Happy 4th of July!