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Flashes, Booms, Bangers, and Wheels

A History of Fireworks

They have names like roman candles, bangers, blinkers, cakes, Catherine wheels, cherry bombs, gerbs, fountains, and firecrackers. They were most likely invented by the Chinese around 200 B.C., although some historians claim they may have been invented in India or by the Arabs. The invading Mongols brought some with them during their invasion of Europe in the 12th century. From there, they became popular in Europe and then in America.

They have become synonymous with celebrations on every level, from national to backyard celebrations. And on every clear night, they can be seen exploding over Walt Disney’s signature theme parks. Authors such as James Joyce and pop stars like Katy Perry have also used them as a metaphor for sex.

Whether they explode into the night sky with a boom, crackle, fizz, or dazzling sparkle, we know and love them as fireworks. Explore some of the interesting history behind the pyrotechnic spectacles we call fireworks.

Green Bamboo, China: 200 B.C.

Man began working with fire about a half million years ago when the cavemen realized they could rub two pieces of wood or stones, like flint, together to create a spark, which would eventually ignite into flames.

Green Bamboo Shoots The first fireworks may have been roasted, hollow green bamboo reeds, that made popping sounds when they were heated, in China However, many historians believe that the first “fireworks” were actually invented in Liuyang, China, around 200 B.C. during the Han Dynasty. Some Chinese legends claim it was a cook, and others say it was a monk named Liu Tang, who discovered that if he roasted hollow green bamboo reeds over a fire, they would explode. The air escaped from inside the bamboo, making the tube a natural firecracker.

The loud cracks frightened the ancient Chinese people and their animals, so they thought the noises would also scare away evil spirits, and these original “firecrackers” began to be used at celebrations.

Birth of Gunpowder, China: A.D. 800

Pile of Gunpowder One of the necessary ingredients in fireworks is gunpowder, which was originally a mixture of honey, sulfur, and saltpeter invented by the Chinese about the 8th century

About the 8th century, Chinese alchemists had become obsessed with discovering a formula for the elixir of life. One of the concoctions they brewed was a mixture of honey, sulfur, and saltpeter (potassium nitrate). When the alchemists evaporated the mixture over heat, the contents erupted into flames. Once charcoal was added to the formula, the famous recipe for gunpowder was born. And this is the first ingredient necessary in the creation of a successful firework (Russell).

The Chinese invention of gunpowder revolutionized warfare and would go on to Arabia, Europe, and the rest of the world. However, the Chinese also used it for more peaceful purposes. They set off military munitions to entertain people, not frighten them. Some experts think the first fireworks were invented during the Sui and Tong Dynasties, about A.D. 581‒907, but others believe that the first fireworks were not displayed until the reign of the Northern Song Dynasty (960‒1279).

By the time of the Song Dynasty, the Chinese were using an explosive similar to gunpowder to launch crude rockets that they called “Flying Fire” together with grenades and toxic smokes. For example, a recipe in the Wu Ching Tsung Yao (Complete Essentials for the Military Classics), dated from 1044, describes a mixture containing sulfur, saltpeter, arsenic salts, lead salts, oils, and waxes that created a toxic incendiary that could be launched from a catapult. They also created the first “firecrackers,” which consisted of a loosely filled parchment tube tied tightly at both ends and with the introduction of a small hole to accept a match or fuse (ibid).

In the early 12th century, Chinese fireworks and firecrackers (yen huo) were used to celebrate the visit of the Chinese emperor. Their fireworks at the time included rockets (or “earth rats,” because they were fired over the ground), wheels, colored-smoke balls, crackers, and fireworks attached to kites. They all made a “glorious noise.” In fact, fireworks were called “Chinese flowers” for centuries upon their introduction into Europe (Werrett 2014).

Fireworks in Great Britain: 14th Century

It is thought the Mongols brought the first fireworks to Europe during their invasion of the continent in 1241. The first firework factories for entertainment are recorded in Germany, in 1340 and 1348, in Augusta, Spandau, and Liegnitz (Werrett 2010).

It did not take long for fireworks manufacturing to spread throughout Europe. There is 1377 record of fireworks accompanying a religious mystery play at the bishop’s palace in Vincenza, Italy, and soon fireworks could be seen adding sparks to figures of doves, representing the Holy Spirit, or angels, made to ascend and descend from the heavens on ropes (Werrett 2014).

Master-General of the Ordnance The first recorded fireworks in Great Britain happened in 1486 at the wedding of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Eragon The first recorded display of fireworks in Great Britain came in 1486 at the wedding of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. They skyrocketed in popularity during Elizabethan times. Queen Elizabeth I even had a fireworks master, Ambrose Dudley, who was given the title of Master-General of the Ordnance. He was to be in charge of organizing all fireworks displays for great occasions. One of his earliest displays occurred at Warwick Castle in 1572 while the queen was on one of her progresses (Tullock).

Fireworks also played an increasingly important role in the entertainment of British subjects when it came to performing plays. Shakespeare’s Globe Theater and other playhouses at the time (specifically the Rose, Red Bull, and the second, rebuilt Globe) all contained a false ceiling, under which a hoisting apparatus—winches hanging from the main roof—was hidden by that false ceiling and could be removed to allow the audience to see the open sky. From there, the audience could be treated to the spectacle of blazing stars, lighting flashes, and other special effects (Graves).

It was under the Stuarts, following the reign of Elizabeth I, that fireworks in Great Britain became a true, publically available spectacle. It is said that James I often liked to incorporate a fireworks display when he held his ceremony to dub knights of the realm. In 1685, King James II’s Royal Fire Master put on such a fantastic fireworks display for the new king’s coronation that the man received a royal knighthood for his efforts (Cohen).

The Green Men, Great Britain: 16th Century

There is a description from 1538 of a barge spouting flames of fire into the River Thames at the coronation of Henry VIII’s second queen, Anne Boleyn. The barge contained “the figure of a great, red dragon continually spouting flames and moving and casting forth wild fire and round about were terrible monstrous and wild men casting fire and making a hideous noise.” These men wore green tunics and fantastic masks and were known as “green men.” (Tullock).

The green men worked with the fireworks masters, doubled as jesters, and entertained the crowd with jokes while they prepared the fireworks displays. The job was very dangerous though, as the green men risked injury, and even death, if something went wrong with the display.

Mysteries of Nature and Art The descriptions of fireworks in John Bate’s The Mysteries of Art and Nature fascinated a young scientist Isaac Newton, who would go to discover the law of gravity Drawing from the green men, Englishman John Bate wrote his book The Mysteries of Nature and Art in 1630, which included many recipes for fireworks, including the flying dragon and a firedrake, a kite that had crackers or lanterns attached to it in order to appear “very strangely and fearfully” (Werrett 2010).

Later, a young English scientist named Isaac Newton would become enamored with Bate’s fireworks recipes. As a boy, Newton “invented the trick of a paper lantern with a candle in it, tied to the tail of a kite. This wonderfully affrighted all the neighboring inhabitants for some time and caused not a little discourse on market days.” Newton would go on to discover and explain the phenomenon of gravity (ibid).

Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot, Great Britain: 1605

Every year on the 5th of November, the British celebrate with fireworks and bonfires an event that has come to be known as “Guy Fawkes’ Night” or the “Gunpowder Plot.” It is remembered as the most significant failed act of terrorism in British history.

Even though his name is attached to the plot, Guy Fawkes, a Catholic mercenary, was not the main conspirator. On the night of November 5, 1605, he and 12 co-conspirators planned to blow up British Parliament and King James I with 20 barrels of gunpowder. The plot was foiled, the conspirators were all killed, and anti-Catholic sentiment was heightened (Slater). Fawkes had the important role of guarding the gunpowder that was placed underneath the Houses of Parliament. He was the responsible for lighting the gunpowder, causing the explosion. Unfortunately for him, he was caught by the Yeoman of the Guard and later executed by hanging for his crime.

Effigy Guy Fawkes The British have bonfires and let off fireworks displays each November 5th to commemorate “Guy Fawkes Night,” which was the narrow escape of King James I and English Parliament from a bomb threat in 1605 Two years later, the first bonfires were lit on the night of November 5 to commemorate the narrow escape of King James I and the British Parliament. Since then, the failed “Gunpowder Plot” has been commemorated annually on same night. The British burn effigies of Guy Fawkes, light bonfires, and set off fireworks displays to remind themselves of the traitor’s failure.

The bonfires and fireworks represent the disaster that never happened, recounted in the famous verse:

Remember, remember the fifth of November.
Gunpowder, treason, and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

School of Fireworks, Italy: 17th Century

In the 17th century, the Italians established a “Fireworks School” in Ruggeri in Bologna. They tasked themselves with developing fireworks displays purely for celebratory purposes. These scholars were still bound by military-grade explosives, and their fireworks were generally whitish or golden orange flashes and sparkles.

Biringuccio De la Pirotechnica De la Pirotechnica, by Vannoccio Birunguccio, is one of the oldest surviving Renaissance manuscripts, and it had a profound effect on the advancement of the pyrotechnic industry During this time, Vannoccio Biringuccio, one of the major innovators in the science of pyrotechnics, wrote one of the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Renaissance era, De la Pirotechnica. It was a huge, technical manual that dealt with everything from minerals, smelting, separating gold from silver, alloys, and alchemy—and it had a profound effect on the industry, manufacturing and, especially, the understanding that led to major advancements in the art of pyrotechnics in the following centuries (Eamon).

Biringuccio describes festivities in Florence and Siena on feast days, with fireworks commonly displayed that included girandoles, or whirling decorated wheels, which were suspended from a rope hung across a street or square (Werrett 2014).

In the 1830s, the Italians helped usher in the modern era of fireworks. They discovered if they added trace amount of metals, such as potassium chlorate and other additives, they could create colorful, brighter, more vivid, displays similar to what we are familiar with today.

Colonial America: 18th Century

According to legend, Captain John Smith was the first to bring fireworks to the New World when he settled the colony at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1608. There is evidence that the early colonists did celebrate with fireworks, and a series of firecracker-related events in Rhode Island became such a bother that the officials banned “the mischievous use of pyrotechnics” in 1731 (Cohen).

President John Adams John Adams, the 2nd President of the United States, wrote a famous letter to his wife in 1776, where he foresaw the importance of fireworks in celebrating Independence Day On July 3, 1776, the day before the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence to officially break free of British rule, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, in which he foresaw the importance of fireworks in future Independence Day celebrations in the United States of America:

The day will be most memorable in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade…bonfires and illuminations [a term for fireworks] from one end of the Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more (Thomas).
Congress officially authorized fireworks as part of the 4th of July celebration in 1777. At the close of that evening, there was the ringing of the bells and a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began with 13 rockets on the Philadelphia Commons. That same year, fireworks lit up the sky over Boston. By 1783, fireworks were largely available to the public. In 1784, one merchant offered Americans a range of pyrotechnics that included “rockets, serpents, table rockets, cherry trees, fountains, and sun flowers.” (Wickman)

Fireworks have continued to be a part of the celebration of American independence. Since 1777, the 4th of July has been celebrated with fireworks on every continent, including in 1934 in Antarctica. Robert Byrd was at his base called Little America, and he and his men set off fireworks in a storm when the temperature was quite warm for them—a balmy -33° F (-34° C). (Handwerk).

First Family of Fireworks, United States: 1893

In 1893, Antonio Zambelli immigrated to the United States from Italy. He came from a proud family of fireworks manufacturers and he brought with him a little black book full of his family’s pyrotechnic secrets. He wanted to carry on his family’s traditions and create some of the most creative and innovative fireworks displays in the world.

Zambelli Logo Known as the “First Family of Fireworks,” the Zambellis have produced fireworks displays for every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama By the time Zambelli had settled in rural New Castle, Pennsylvania, in the early 1900s, fireworks were a common site after religious holidays and special Italian celebrations. Zambelli opened his own factory and began manufacturing fireworks. His son George would go on to graduate from college and make his father’s fireworks company into the greatest pyrotechnics manufacturer in the country.

In September 1963, President John F. Kennedy invited the Zambellis to produce a fireworks display for the White House that the president and his family could watch from the balcony in honor of the visit of the King of Afghanistan in 1963. After the display, President Kennedy dubbed the Zambellis the “First Family of Fireworks,” and they have produced fireworks displays for every U.S. president since then. Their fireworks also lit up the sky over London’s Hyde Park on the eve of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding in 1981 and welcomed home troops following Operation Desert Storm. Interestingly, beatnik author Hunter Thompson requested, after his death, that the Zambellis propel his remains into the sky (Buchanan).

Modern Developments: 19th and 20th Centuries

All fireworks have three basic elements: gunpowder, a fuel, and an oxidizing agent. With the introduction of oxidizing agents such as potassium nitrate, perchlorates, or chlorates of other various metals, the modern age of fireworks was ushered in. Oxymurate—or hyperoxymurate of potash, as it was called then—was first prepared by Claude Louis Berthollet in 1786. In 1807, a Scots clergyman named Alexander John Forsyth patented the use of a powder containing potassium chlorate to be fired by percussion (Sattaur).

Colorful Firework Display The modern age of brightly colored, dazzling fireworks was ushered in in 1786 when Frenchman Claude Louis Berthollet first introduced oxymurate into the fireworks’ formula Magnesium, aluminum, and titanium fillings in the fireworks compositions produced brilliant sparks, and powdered aluminum and antimony yielded glitter. Burning metals produced colors. For example, strontium carbonate or oxalate produced red, barium salts produced green, sodium produced yellow, and potassium and barium made white fireworks (ibid).

Blue has always been a particular problem for fireworks designers. The only way they found to make a passable blue was to combine copper carbonate and oxychloride. This combination did create a blue firework, but copper heated at higher temperatures produced a less bright gas that quickly washed out, and the color quickly disappeared. Recently, designers have discovered a magnesium-aluminum alloy known as magnalium that has solved the problem. Stars made with magnalium burn electric, almost fluorescent, green, yellow, red, “cop” blue, and purple (Wilson).

Around the turn of the 20th century, the Hitt family of Washington State incorporated the use of metal-fused flash powders, which photographers used for illumination when taking portraits, into fireworks. They called their invention “Hitt’s Flashcrackas,” and the introduction of these flash powders—or, simply, “flash”—revolutionized the manufacture of firecrackers. Overnight, smaller firecrackers became more potent—and therefore more dangerous (Donner).

Cherry Bombs and Other Banned Fireworks: 1930s‒1970s

Originally, the type of firework known as a cherry bomb was used as a weapon during the Civil War. Patented formally by Alberto Cimorosi of Elkton, Maryland, in December 1930, they were called Globe Flash Salutes, and later the cherry salute or cherry bomb. They resembled a cherry in size, shape, and color, and the term “cherry bomb” became bastardized among the general public to mean any large firecracker (ibid).

Moon, The Who Keith Moon, the drummer for the band The Who, was famously banned from using cherry bombs in the United States in 1966 to blow up hotel toilets In 1966, the United States banned cherry bombs, although that didn’t stop drummer Keith Moon of the band The Who from letting off some steam by blowing up hotel toilets with illegal cherry bombs. The Who’s road manager tried to stop him from purchasing the cherry bombs at a supermarket in the Deep South but was unsuccessful, and Moon bought a large amount. From then on, every toilet he came across, he’d run back to use the john, light a cherry bomb, toss it into the toilet, and flush (Wright and Van Hecke).

The United States would go on to pass stricter regulations in 1976, which required fuses on consumer fireworks to burn for at least 3 but no more than 9 seconds, and safety warnings on all fireworks became standard protocol (Green).

Disney and Fireworks: 1956 to the Present

Fireworks at Disney Disneyland alone ignites 90,000 pounds of fireworks on 239 night each year with its elaborate pyrotechnic displays

Disney is the largest U.S. consumer of fireworks, and its theme parks are famous for their end-of-the-evening fireworks extravaganzas they put on display each night (except at the Animal Kingdom), weather permitting. Disneyland Park alone ignites 90,000 pounds of gunpowder on 239 nights each year with their fireworks displays (Clarkson).

Disney began lighting off fireworks displays at their Anaheim, California, park in 1956. At first, technicians had to light the individual fuses by hand—but by the 1960s, Disney had switched to an electronic system that launched the shells, with the shows carefully synchronized to music. By 2000, the theme parks were offering elaborate fireworks displays with Tinker Bell and Dumbo flying overhead.

Disney switched to compressed-air technology at Disneyland in 2004, following complaints about noise and pollution by local residents. The switch to the environmentally friendly fireworks decreased the noise by 60% and significantly reduced pollution (ibid).

The Beijing “Fake” Fireworks: 2008

Beijing, China, hosted the Summer Olympic Games in 2008. A massive worldwide audience in the billions, watching on their television, oohed and aahed over the spectacular fireworks display of footprints that appeared to walk across the sky and the synchronized fireworks going off across the city. These displays were revolutionary in their technical achievement. Unfortunately, they were fakes.

Fireworks Summer Olympics The Chinese dazzled the world in 2008 with their fireworks displays of footprints walking across the sky, which were later proven to be fakes, aided by computer technology

The team responsible for creating the displays later admitted that they had enhanced the fireworks displays with CGI (computer-generated images) for television viewers—there were actual fireworks going off in Beijing, but television viewers would not be able to see the real footage. The Chinese Olympics Visual Effects Team admitted to using digitally re-created footage for television viewers because of poor visibility and other sequences that were impossible to film by helicopter, including the 55-second sequence of footprints (Kent).


The American Pyrotechnics Association (APA) estimates that more than 14,000 fireworks displays light up U.S. skies alone each July 4th (Handwerk). From the vivid pinks, greens, and golden peonies and chrysanthemums and the silvery-white dazzle of stars exploding into the skies overhead to the crackle, hiss, and sizzle of cherry bombs, caps, and firecrackers as they pop in a blaze of light on the ground, fireworks have come a long way from their origins as a humble green bamboo shoot. They can take the shape of Disney characters and footprints and can be synched with computers to create dazzling light shows that boggle the mind.

Whether lighting the skies over the Statue of Liberty and the Olympics or delighting and amazing children at backyard birthday parties, fireworks have become synonymous with celebrations large and small the world over.

-- Posted September 3, 2015


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