Everything you want to know about fireworks thisFourth of July
Fireworks bring Independence Day celebrations to new heights. But today’s complex aerial displays would likely be unrecognizable to the people who invented fireworks. Explore their humble beginnings and what makes them pop with this interactive explainer.
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The history of fireworks
source: history.comAt some point between 600 and 900 A.D., Chinese alchemists mixed together saltpeter (potassium nitrate, then a common kitchen seasoning), charcoal, sulfur, and other ingredients, unwittingly yielding an early form of gunpowder. The alchemists began stuffing the volatile substance into bamboo shoots that were then thrown into the fire to produce a loud blast. The first fireworks were born.
Soon, paper tubes came to replace the bamboo stalks, and by the 10th century, crafters of fireworks had begun attaching firecrackers to arrows that rained down on their adversaries during military engagements. Used outside the field of battle, the same technology allowed fireworks masters to put on the first aerial displays.
source: history.comIn the 13th century, gunpowder samples and formulas began trickling into Europe and Arabia, transported by diplomats, explorers, and Franciscan missionaries. Western scientists, metallurgists, and military leaders threw themselves into making the substance even more potent and building powerful weapons such as cannons and muskets.
In medieval England, fireworks experts were known as firemasters. Their assistants, called “green men” because they wore caps of leaves to protect their heads from sparks, doubled as jesters, entertaining the crowd with jokes as they prepared the displays. It was a dangerous profession at the time, with many green men dying or suffering injuries when detonations went awry.
source: history.comBy the time of the Renaissance, pyrotechnic schools were training fireworks artists across Europe, particularly in Italy, which became famous for its elaborate and colorful displays. It was the Italians who in the 1830s became the first to incorporate trace amounts of metals and other additives, creating the bright, multi-hued sparks and sunbursts seen in contemporary fireworks shows.
In England, the earliest recorded display took place on Henry VII’s wedding day in 1486. French kings regularly put on spectacular displays at Versailles and other palaces, while Peter the Great of Russia arranged a five-hour pyrotechnic extravaganza to mark the birth of his son.
Settlers brought fireworks to the new world and on July 3, 1777, fireworks displays commemorated the fledgling country’s first anniversary, just as they have each subsequent one.
How do fireworks work?
Aerial fireworks are usually manufactured as a shell that is made up of four parts. The container consists of pasted paper. A timed fuse allows the shell to reach the desired altitude before exploding. A bursting charge made of black powder (like a firecracker) is at the center of the shell. Around the black powder are “stars” in various patterns. These contain metals such as copper, barium, and strontium, which provide the colors of the fireworks. Northeastern professor Michael Pollastri explains the science behind fireworks in greater detail here.
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Have a safe Fourth of July!
- When lighting fireworks:
- Keep a supply of water close by as a precaution.
- Wear eye protection when lighting fireworks.
- Never pick up or try to relight a “dud.”
- Aim for the sky. Never throw or point fireworks at people or animals.
- Only use fireworks outside.
- Never grill indoors.
- Keep the grill away from houses, trees, and other things that could catch fire.
- Never throw starter fluid on a fire that has already been ignited.
- Here are some great barbecue tips.
- And don’t forget:
- Wear sunscreen!