Legend has it that fireworks, like many great inventions, happened by accident.
Some speculate that a Chinese cook may have made the discovery by mixing charcoal and saltpeter. Others credit early villagers who realized that burning bamboo made a loud popping sound and was used to ward off evil spirits.
Later, the mixture of charcoal, saltpeter, and other substances were packed into the bamboo, and fireworks were born.
China continues to produce and export more fireworks than any other country.
Throughout history, these “noise makers” have been used to celebrate military victories, festivities, and even weddings. Henry VII used firework displays to celebrate his wedding in 1486.
In 1685, James II’s royal firemaster presented a dazzling presentation for the king’s coronation.
Czar Peter the Great of Russia arranged a five-hour extravaganza to mark the birth of his son.
Europeans brought their knowledge of fireworks to the New World and Captain John Smith set off the first display in Jamestown in 1608.
In 1776, John Adams is said to have been the person instrumental in making fireworks an American tradition on July 4th.
Adams said that such a great endeavor should be filled with “bonfires and illuminations [a term for fireworks]…from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”
The first official July 4th fireworks show was held one year later, in 1777, celebrating the one-year anniversary of our great country.
In the 1830s, it was the Italians who became the first to add small amounts of metals and other additives, creating the bright, multicolored sparks seen in fireworks shows today. As technology has progressed, so has the fireworks industry, creating jaw-dropping displays.
If you watch the fireworks shows this Fourth of July, you will witness over 2000 years of danger, invention and beauty wrapped into a simple package.
From exploding bamboo to parcels of gunpowder and metals, our science — and our world — have come a long way! Even the most common science often has a wonderful and fascinating history.