The History of Fireworks: From Ancient China to Today

From their invention in ancient China to their use today, fireworks have the ability to awe and dazzle us.

The History of Fireworks: From Ancient China to Today
Fireworks over Manhattan, NY photovs/iStock

Americans are getting ready to celebrate Independence Day on July 4th with fireworks. Even in this jaded age, fireworks still have the ability to awe us and to take our breath away.

The First Fireworks

Fireworks first appeared in 200 BC, when the ancient Chinese would roast pieces of bamboo in a fire. Hollow pockets in the bamboo would explode, and evil spirits would be warded off.

By 900 AD, during the Tang Dynasty, Chinese alchemists were mixing together saltpeter (potassium nitrate), charcoal and sulfur, which was an early form of gunpowder.

They stuffed it into hollowed-out bamboo sticks, then roasted those to produce a loud blast. Today, fireworks are a part of the Chinese New Year and the mid-autumn Moon Festivals.

The History of Fireworks: From Ancient China to Today
Ancient Chinese fireworks. Source: Pierre Nicolas d'Incarville/Wikimedia Commons

In the 10th century, the Chinese had learned that the fireworks could be attached to arrows, creating crude bombs. By the 12th century, they had learned how to fire the explosives into the air, thus creating the first aerial displays.

By 1240 AD, the Arabs had acquired knowledge of gunpowder and its uses from China. Arab writers referred to rockets, fireworks, and other incendiaries as "Chinese flowers."

The History of Fireworks: From Ancient China to Today
Fireworks display for Muhammad Shah. Source: British Museum/Wikimedia Commons

The 13th century brought increasing trade, and formulas for gunpowder began showing up in Europe and Arabia. Alchemists began tinkering with the formula, and they created even more powerful gunpowder for use in muskets and cannons.

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During the same time in England, fireworks experts were known as "firemasters," and their assistants were called "green men," due to the fact that they wore caps made out of leaves. This was to protect them from sparks coming from the fireworks.

Fireworks in Europe

During the Renaissance in Europe, there were fireworks schools to train artists, and fireworks were popular in Italy. During the 1830s, the Italians added trace amounts of metals to the mix to create multicolored displays.

Fireworks were being used at public celebrations and religious ceremonies, and they became especially popular among European rulers. The earliest recorded fireworks display in Great Britain took place on Henry VII's wedding day in 1486. Henry VII was the father of the more well known Henry VIII.

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In France, fireworks were part of the display for revelers at Versailles, while in Russia, Czar Peter the Great put on a five-hour fireworks display on the occasion of the birth of his son.

On May 15, 1749, England's Duke of Richmond put on a fireworks display at Whitehall on the River Thames, for the benefit of King George II to celebrate the signing of the treaty which marked the end of the War of Austrian Succession. For the occasion, composer George Frideric Handel created an accompanying piece of music entitled, "Music for the Royal Fireworks."

Duke of Richmond's fireworks display
Duke of Richmond's fireworks display. Source: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, one of the fireworks landed on the pavilion housing the rest of the fireworks, and several thousand fireworks ignited at once, killing three spectators.

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The New World

Captain John Smith may have set off the first fireworks in the Jamestown Colony in 1608.

On July 4, 1777, fireworks displays commemorated America's first birthday. In 1789, George Washington's inauguration was accompanied by a fireworks display.

The day before the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote in a letter to his wife:

"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 [fireworks] ... from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore."

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Fireworks Today

Countries throughout the world use fireworks to celebrate.

France fires off fireworks on the eve of Bastille Day (July 14) to commemorate the storming of the Bastille in 1789. Hungary sets off fireworks on August 20th, while in India, fireworks are part of their "festival of lights" (Diwali) which occurs in October or November each year.

Bastille Day fireworks
Bastille Day fireworks. Source: Yann Caradec/Wikimedia Commons

Japan has over 200 fireworks celebrations during the month of August, with the largest in Tondabayashi and Osaka. In Monte Carlo, fireworks are part of the National Day of Monaco on November 18th.

Singapore has its Singapore Fireworks Celebrations on its National Day. In Switzerland, fireworks are set off on their national celebration day August 1st.

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Great Britain uses fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night, on November 5th, to celebrate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Large fireworks displays occur in the cities of Sheffield, Holyhead, Inverness, Cambridge, and Cardiff.

In the U.S., on the 4th of July, there are large fireworks displays in New York City over the Hudson River, along the Charles River in Boston, and at the National Mall in Washington DC.

If you've ever been to one of the Disney parks, you know that the night usually ends with a spectacular fireworks display.

In 2004, Disneyland, in Anaheim, California, pioneered the use of compressed air instead of gunpowder to launch its fireworks. They also used an electric timer to detonate the shells in mid-air, resulting in a reduction in fumes, and greater accuracy in height and timing.

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Today, the Walt Disney Company is the largest consumer of fireworks in the U.S.

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