Fourth of July parties, Guy Fawkes night, and New Year’s eve celebrations have all become associated with the bang and sparkle of dazzling firework displays. But where did the idea come from, and how did they become so popular?
According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, historians believe fireworks originated in the second century BCE in Liuyang, China. The first fireworks were actually bamboo stalks that, when thrown on a fire, would explode with a bang because of the hollow cavity within them. Some thought that these “firecrackers” would help ward off evil spirits.
Sometime later, in 600-900 CE, the first gunpowder was created by combining saltpeter (potassium nitrate), sulfur, and charcoal. This combination was then used by the Chinese monk Li Tan to stuff the mixture within the hollow bamboo to create the first human-made fireworks. This process evolved from bamboo shoots to the use of paper tubes, and fuses were added rather than flinging the fireworks onto a fire.
Reports vary about how these original Chinese fireworks made it across to Europe. In 1295, Marco Polo, the Italian merchant and writer, is said to have brought fireworks across from Asia. Around the time of the Crusades, which began in 1095, gunpowder was also being used in weapons around Europe.
While gunpowder was co-opted into weapons, the original entertainment potential of fireworks was still understood. Fireworks were thought to be part of the wedding celebration after the marriage of King Henry VII of England and Elizabeth of York in 1486.
According to English Heritage, during the reign of Elizabeth I, she became so taken with fireworks that she appointed an official "Fire Master of England". Even Shakespeare dabbled with fireworks and gunpowder, accidentally burning down the Globe Theatre in 1613. Around 1830, there were even firework schools in Italy and across Europe to train artists in making different colored explosions.
The first American firework display was said to have been started by Captain John Smith in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1608. By July 4, 1777, fireworks were used in the celebration of the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
In January 2022, the Guinness World Record for the largest straight-line firework display was achieved in Abu Dhabi and featured 22,240 fireworks. Unsurprisingly, the Walt Disney Company is thought to be the largest consumer of fireworks in the world, shipping millions from China each year.
Fireworks also have their fair share of controversy, with many animal welfare supporters concerned about the impact of these displays on pets and wildlife and the risk of wildfires that can be caused.