The History of Fireworks

Fireworks, beach, people, silhouettesThe Chinese have forever been known for their prowess in alchemy; namely, their deep understanding of employing the powers and the combinations of natural ingredients to aid in the healing and well-being of humans. One can only imagine that through all of these successes there had to have been some failures. Imagine an aspiring alchemist noodling around with ingredients one day only to create something that went horribly wrong.

Historians believe that sometime between 600 and 900 CE this very thing may have happened when saltpeter (also known as potassium nitrate, which at the time was a common culinary seasoning), charcoal, sulfur, and other ingredients were mixed together. Although historians are uncertain of the intent for the concoction (legend tells that the alchemists were searching for the elixir of life), it’s clear that it has had a profound impact on world history. The product of this experiment became the basis for gun powder, which continues to be a ubiquitous military tool. But let’s focus on the booming-loud, pretty, sparkly bits for this post, shall we?

 

Chinese firecracker, red and gold, string

 

The First Firework

The first fiery boom happened when ancients placed large bamboo segments on the fire, and then the trapped air in the bamboo heated up and exploded with flair. This became a go-to means of warding off evil spirits. After the advent of gunpowder, paper tubes were filled with the powder to replicate the experience, ultimately leading to the modern-day tradition of setting off strings of firecrackers during festivals and national events throughout the year.

 

King-JamesIII-England-Wedding

 

Flash Forward to the 15th Century

Fireworks were nothing new to Europe in the 1400s—Marco Polo had brought them back from the Orient in 1292—but it was during the Renaissance that the Italians began to imbue their artistic expression into what became an explosive art form. The first documented event to feature fireworks was the wedding of King Henry VII in 1486; English courtesans were reported to have been awed by the spectacle. After that, fireworks displays became such a part of the aristocratic culture that in 1685, James II bestowed a knighthood upon his royal firemaster as a reward for his glittering presentation at the king’s coronation.

Interesting fact about fireworks: Their display in England was strictly for private audiences until the 1730s.

 

A Founding Father’s Foreshadowing

Fireworks displays have been a part of the Independence Day celebrations in the United States from day one. In a letter that John Adams wrote to his wife on July 3, 1776, he stated

I am apt to believe that it (July 4th as the date of the Declaration of Independence) will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance . . . to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade . . . Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations (a term used meaning fireworks) from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

From hand-held sparklers to mile-high blazes of ooh-and-aah inspiring glory, the spectacle of fireworks continues to be an inextricable part of our collective celebration of good things past and those to come. Whether it’s the visual splendor or the physical, visceral impact of this millennia-old expression of victory and joy, how lucky are we to be able to crane our heads to the sky and give thanks for what we have?

We wish you a very happy, and safe 4th of July.

 

Learn the language of the fireworks from their creators

Travel to Italy to learn more about their centuries-old tradition of making, and presenting fireworks? Rosetta Stone® Italian language learning software will have you speaking instantly and will help learn how to say, “How do you say, ‘ooh, aah’ in Italian?”

Learn Mandarin Chinese and understand the origins of fireworks and the inextricable cultural impact they have had on traditions and celebrations of this ancient land. Rosetta Stone® Mandarin will get you started on the road to China armed with the language of the people whose understanding of alchemy and explosives for entertainment have forever impacted our world.

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Kelly Doscher

Kelly is the Social Media Manager and Blog Editor for Livemocha – a Rosetta Stone subsidiary – and an award-winning mom blogger. She holds a B.A. in French Studies from the University of Washington, has a passion for languages, food, and travel.
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