What's the first thing you think of when someone mentions the Fourth of July? Sure, cookouts, the Liberty Bell, apple pie and the like may come to mind when commemorating our nation's birthday, but no Independence Day festivities would be complete without one essential highlight – fireworks, of course! From modest bottle rockets and sparklers to the most extravagant aerial displays, fireworks play an essential role in helping people celebrate not only the Fourth of July, but also countless other special occasions around the globe. But who invented fireworks, and how did they become such a time-honored, worldwide phenomenon? With one of the year's most popular times for fireworks at hand, InventHelp® is pleased to present this glance at the history of innovation in pyrotechnic displays.
The invention of fireworks can be traced back several thousand years ago to ancient China, around the time of the Han Dynasty (206-220 BC). During that period, it was discovered that when rods of bamboo were lit on fire, they began to crackle and eventually exploded with an astonishingly loud sound. People found the noise so terrifying that they started to use the pao chuk (or "bursting bamboo") to frighten away evil spirits. Later, during the Northern and Southern Dynasties (AD 420-581), these rudimentary firecrackers were employed as invocations for happiness and prosperity.
The subsequent Chinese discovery of gunpowder – generally believed to be in the Sui and Tang Dynasties (581-907) – gave birth to the first "modern" fireworks. Some fearless innovators decided to stuff the volatile new compound into stalks of pao chuk and then light them on fire. If the pioneers of fireworks found the pop of ignited bamboo alone startling, imagine how shocked they must have been when the addition of gunpowder caused a blast that was much louder and far more powerful than any of their previous experiments!
Once Chinese alchemists realized the impressive potential of their new invention, they began to explore alternative housings that were not as cumbersome as the traditional bamboo rods. Stiff paper tubes with gunpowder and tissue-like fuses soon replaced pao chuk as the standard for constructing firecrackers.
And by the time the 13th-century rolled around, the Chinese military had developed another variation, which they called the "ground rat." With one end left open, these new firecrackers did not explode when lit; instead, burning gas shot out of the opening and propelled the rat along the ground in an unpredictable pattern. The military used the ground rats to confuse enemy soldiers and terrify their horses, but civilian fireworks makers added a festive touch. They incorporated a small explosive charge into the rats and fired them skyward, thus inventing the first "bottle rockets"!
Fireworks remained a chiefly Asian phenomenon until 1292, when the explorer Marco Polo brought back a crate of Oriental pyrotechnics to his native Italy. The Italians soon developed a strong affinity for fireworks, and "fire masters" began to compete with each other to see who could produce the most dazzling exhibitions. As a result, Italy was the setting for a number of important innovations in the craft during the European Renaissance.
Foremost among the Italians' contributions was the development of "shells," which were explosive-filled canisters that could be fired into the air and detonated at maximum height. This new discovery helped to form the backbone of modern aerial fireworks displays. Additionally, Italian fire masters experimented with a slower-burning explosive mixture that produced showers of radiant sparks upon ignition. Using the new compound, they subsequently constructed the precursors to some of today's most popular varieties of fireworks, including "fountains," "spinners," "cones," "wheels," "Roman candles" and "sparklers."
But this Western passion for fireworks was not unique to Italy. By the mid-1600's pyrotechnic displays were wildly popular throughout Europe, as noblemen sought to showcase their wealth and power by using fireworks to commemorate weddings, festivals, coronations and other such ceremonies. The marriage of King Henry VII in 1486 marked the first fireworks display in England, and during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I such exhibitions became extremely fashionable. Elizabeth herself was so impressed with the increasingly elaborate displays that she created a new title, "Fire Master of England," which was bestowed upon the nation's most respected fireworks maker.
The crown jewel of fireworks from 1500-1700 was a massive contrivance called the "dragon." Consisting of a huge wooden frame covered in papier-mâché scales, the device was stuffed full of spinners, fountains and firecrackers that combined to give the effect of a huge fire-breathing monster upon ignition. Oftentimes, two dragons would be placed opposite each other and set off into a spectacular mock-battle.
By the time the 18th century dawned, fireworks shows in England had shifted from mostly private, aristocratic affairs into elaborate public displays that attracted visitors from all across Europe. Not surprisingly, English settlers carried this passion for fireworks with them to the New World, where they used black-powder firecrackers to celebrate special occasions and frighten off natives. In the Rhode Island colony, firecracker-related pranks began to cause such a disturbance that officials enacted a 1731 ban on "mischievous use of pyrotechnics"!
When the original thirteen colonies declared their independence from England, fireworks played a central part in celebrating the occasion. The first Fourth of July festivities took place in 1777, just one year after the Declaration of Independence was signed, and six years before the colonists knew if they would realize their dream of autonomy – or be hanged for treason. With the Revolutionary War raging and the outcome anything but certain, setting off fireworks helped steel the early Americans' resolve and gave them a common feeling of patriotism. Of course, the colonists eventually did win their independence in 1783, and fireworks have continued to light up the night sky in jubilation each July 4th.
But the fireworks enjoyed by colonial Americans and their predecessors lacked one key element that makes them the aesthetic marvels they are today. Until the 1830's, orange or white flashes and sparks were the only colors seen in pyrotechnics displays. It took the ingenuity of Italian fire masters – long considered experts in the craft – to discover that burning different metallic salts with potassium chlorate could produce a wide variety of colored fireworks. The addition of color heralded in a new era of pyrotechnic entertainment, making it possible for people around the world to enjoy the kind of radiant spectacles that we have become accustomed to in our present time.
Interestingly enough, the world's largest and most renowned fireworks exhibitors – Zambelli Fireworks Internationale, located in New Castle, Pennsylvania – is just a short drive from InventHelp's Pittsburgh headquarters. Dubbed the "First Family of Fireworks," the Zambellis left Italy in 1893 to take their business to the United States. Since then, the company has produced some of the most spectacular pyrotechnics displays in our nation's history. They have had the distinction of giving performances at such memorable venues as the Statue of Liberty anniversary celebration, Super Bowls, Las Vegas Casinos, Mt. Rushmore and the "Thunder Over Louisville" extravaganza. InventHelp® is proud to share a southwestern Pennsylvania home with this juggernaut of the fireworks industry.
We here at InventHelp believe that the history of fireworks is a testament to the myriad faces of innovation – some advances in the craft were calculated meticulously, while others came about entirely by accident. In any case, InventHelp salutes the inventive spirit of history's great pyrotechnicians, which has added so much to our enjoyment of festivities throughout the years. So whether you're celebrating American Independence Day, Bonfire Night in England, Chinese New Year or countless other occasions across the world, take some time to remember that without the contributions of some very brave innovators, revelry wouldn't be nearly as much fun.