Things that go BOOM in the night: the History of Fireworks.
Since my turn to post falls on the Fourth of July, what discussion could be more appropriate to the event than the history of fireworks?
West meets East when it comes to the use of fireworks for celebrations, a tradition that has existed for the at least the last millennium.
The history of fireworks can be traced to China’s Han Dynasty (~200 B.C.). Lengths of green bamboo, which someone may have one evening tossed onto a fire when dry fuel ran short, after a while, unexpectedly exploded. When heated, the air inside of the hollow reeds expands, and eventually bursts through the side with a bam!
This new and terrible noise frightened human and animal alike, leading to the conclusion that if living creatures could be so terrified by the bang, then the noise was probably powerful enough to scare away spirits. Their particular nemesis was an evil spirit called Nian, who they believed to eat crops and people. It became the custom to throw green bamboo onto a fire during the Lunar New Year in order to scare Nian and other spirits far way, thus ensuring happiness and prosperity in the coming year. For the next millennium, the Chinese would celebrate other festivals and special occasions such as weddings, births, and coronations, with the pao chuk or “bursting bamboo.”
Centuries later, sometime during the Sui and Tang dynasties (~600-900 A.D.), alchemists experimenting with sulfurous mixtures, produced a hot, bright flame, which they called huo yao, or the “fire chemical.” By filling the bamboo tubes with the “fire chemical,” a much greater explosion was produced—and bang—the firecracker was born.
The Italians became fascinated with fireworks when the explorer Marco Polo brought back firecrackers from the Orient in 1292. During the Renaissance the Italians began to develop fireworks into an art form that was continually reinventing itself. Powdered metals and charcoal were added to rockets, which, when they exploded, created bursts of gold and silver sparks in the sky.
A slower-burning gunpowder mix could be put in an open-ended tube, which would give off sparks when lit. Elaborate contraptions were built which, when ignited would resemble spinning wheels, torches, or fountains of colored light. Artisans rigged explosives to sculpted frameworks or set pieces representing palaces or other recognizable shapes. One popular fireworks display was the dragon, a massive papier mache monster that would seem to breathe fire as the fireworks erupted from its jaws.
Monarchs, who could display their power by seeming to tame the elements, impressed their subjects with lavish and costly fireworks displays at weddings and coronation ceremonies. Elizabeth I was such a tremendous fan of fireworks for celebrations that she created the post of Fire Master of England. Her successor, James I, also enamored of the rockets’ red glare, knighted his Fire Master.
During the first half of the 18th century, the discovery of “quick match”—a fast-burning fuse made by putting a regular fuse into a small, continuous paper tube—enabled fire masters to ignite many fireworks simultaneously, and around the 1730s fireworks shows in England evolved from spectacles of royal pomp and privilege into public entertainments, including lavish displays on Guy Fawkes day each November 5 to celebrate [the foiling of] the famous Gunpowder Plot.
Fireworks were brought to the New World in the 17th century, where European settlers used them to celebrate special occasions and to impress or scare off Native Americans. The first time fireworks were ignited to celebrate Independence Day was the one-year anniversary of the 4th of July in 1777. Although the Revolutionary War raged on, the pageantry that lit up the night sky inspired the new Americans with patriotic zeal. And in 1789, when George Washington took office as the first President, a fireworks display was a centerpiece of the celebrations.
In the 19th century, when trade relations were established between the U.S. and China Chinese firecrackers became a major import in America, and to this day, China remains the largest manufacturer and exporter of fireworks in the world.
And the Italians remain masters of the craft—Macy*s famous Fourth of July celebration on New York City’s East River is brought to American audiences each year courtesy of the Grucci family.
Macy*s annual 4th of July fireworks display over NYC's East River
So, here's one instance where editors, critique partners, and readers have no cause to complain that your fireworks aren't "period" unless you've set your novel well before the birth of J.C. (Julius Caesar). Have you included scenes with fireworks displays in your historical novels?
Happy Independence Day, everyone!